Culture  Putting the story back in history

Montreal Life Stories Research Project sheds light on global tragedy, one life story at a time

The Montreal Life Stories Research Project, based in Concordia University’s history department, hopes to give members of displaced communities a voice by encouraging them to share their personal stories in recorded interviews.

The project enlists the aid of 175 researchers – counting professors and students – as well as 180 volunteer community partners to compile an archive of spoken histories, in the hopes of re-inserting personal insight into our accounts of the tragedies that have scarred these past two centuries.

The project, currently in its third year, prioritizes its interviewees, who retain authority over their personal accounts. The group is also mandated to preserve its personal approach, a principle that has informed the project since its inception. Indeed, the group makes ties to individual communities, listening to those who wish to contribute their stories rather than posing prying questions. The interviewing style is honed to that end, using few simple, open questions – “Tell me about your grandmother,” for instance – meant to give interviewees the chance to drive the dialogue.

Though aiming to compile 500 testimonials – each ranging from five to 20 hours – by the end of their planned five-year lifespan, the group devoted their whole first year to training their staff on interviewing techniques, as well as developing advisory councils with immigrant communities. The project coordinator, Eve-Lyne Cayouette Ashby, accented the research project’s emphasis away from the journalistic approach. “These testimonials serve to capture unique moments in the context of a life history, which is part of our larger global history. Where a scientific perspective usually aims to obtain distance and objectivity, this project diverges and wishes to start with the subjective experience of members of the communities who have suffered social injustice.”

Currently the project is still in the research stage, conducting outreach to communities and looking for people willing to tell their stories. One major goal – once the testimonials have been compiled – is accessibility, opening the interviews to all those who wish to consult them. Of course not all participants are willing to have their stories archived for public use, a reservation the research group respects, as part of their mandate for proper handling of the participants’ testimonials. Researchers work closely with interviewees to edit and choose what they want to share or omit from the recordings. What is important is that – for those who choose to make their testimonials – the medium of oral history provides a good means to foster understanding and insight into the lives of those displaced populations who are a part of the larger Montreal community.

The project is part of the Conseils de recherche des sciences humain du Canada (CRSH), one of many federally funded research grant programs. The project is being directly supervised by Community University Research Alliance (CURA), and has identified seven “working groups” helping to divide the project into smaller sub-communities within Montreal and allow researchers to connect on a deeper level to individuals within them. These groups include Cambodian, Haitian, and African refugees, Holocaust survivors, and First Nations populations that have been displaced from their larger communities. The three remaining working groups aim to connect with youth refugee groups, through performance pieces conceived in cooperation with the Life Stories Project team. The Montreal Life Stories Research Project is actively seeking volunteers and participants both in a research capacity and as community and student affiliates; take this as an opportunity to get involved with the organization.

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