By Erin Isaac
The Tunnels of Moose Jaw are one of Saskatchewan’s most popular tourist destinations and occupy a special place in local history and lore. Growing up as kid in Saskatchewan, I visited the Tunnels on multiple school trips and even had to do a 7th-grade book report on Mary Harelkin Bishop’s novel The Tunnels of Time (a fiction book that places the modern-day point-of-view character back in time to when the Tunnels were used by gangsters and bootleggers).
Today, the Tunnels are described as an immersive historical experience that take guests through staged tunnels with costumed cast members. The facility offers two different experiences for visitors: The Chicago Connection and Passage to Fortune.
The better-known Chicago Connection Tour takes visitors through the history of prohibition in Saskatchewan and Moose Jaw’s highly speculated upon connections to the infamous gangster, Al Capone. This tour is a lot of fun. I remember, as a kid, being brought into the action by being asked to knock a certain pattern on a door, escape a shoot-out, and interact with a cast of troublesome characters wrapped up in rum-running and the illicit liquor trade.
This high-energy, sensational experience is countered by a more recent addition to the Tunnels experience, the Passage to Fortune tour, which is more serious and somber in its delivery. This tour takes visitors through the basement of a laundry and the kitchen of a cafe and, like the older Chicago Connection Tour, involves guests in the narrative. In this case, guests are informed that they have been cast as Chinese immigrants who are new to Canada and are being shown their new quarters and work spaces, which are in the dark underground spaces.
The tour’s unannounced goal seems to give guests a sense of the history of racism Chinese migrants experienced in Canada and to teach its guests about blatantly racist policies Chinese migrants endured, such as the head tax. The Facebook post releasing the Tunnels’ new promo post in July explains that “History never changes, no matter how much light you try to shine upon it. There are secrets deep underground where the light never shines and the embittered energy of lost souls echo.”
A major problem with this experience is that it’s largely inaccurate to the actual history of Chinese migration into Moose Jaw and has changed aspects of the history to make the tour make sense within the context of the Tunnels of Moose Jaw that simply aren’t true—such as by suggesting that Chinese Canadians were forced to live underground or that laundries were owned by white business owners.
To better understand how the Tunnels present Chinese Canadian history and its impacts, I spoke with Dr. Ashleigh Androsoff of the University of Saskatchewan, an expert in the history of ethnic diversity in Western Canada. Dr. Androsoff took the time to explain what they do well, how the information they present can actually be harmful, and some details about the true history that the Tunnels obscures.
Erin Isaac (PhD student, Western University) is Historia Nostra’s creator, writer, and producer. Suggestions, collaboration pitches, or feedback should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.