Introducing Active History on Display

      No Comments on Introducing Active History on Display

Source: Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, a Mexican migrant worker who died from Covid-19 on 30 May 2020, in the Windsor-Essex region of southwestern Ontario. Source: Human Cost of Food Exhibit.

Active History is delighted to launch our digital history initiative, Active History on Display (en français: Expositions d’Active History). The project features two exhibits. The first, More Than a Face, engages with nine storytellers to challenge dominant narratives of what it means to be Asian Canadian – and indeed to challenge the very idea that such a capacious category can have a single coherent meaning. The second, The Human Cost of Food, examines the history of death, injury, and illness among migrant farm workers in Canada to reveal the suffering that underlays our food system – but also longstanding practices of worker resistance that seek to remake it.

Active History on Display builds on the mission of Active History while extending it in new directions. Active History began as a collaborative effort in 2009 to make history accessible to a wider audience and to provide a forum for a diversity of perspectives. Our mission states: “We define active history variously as history that listens and is responsive; history that will make a tangible difference in people’s lives; history that makes an intervention and is transformative to both practitioners and communities. We seek a practice of history that emphasizes collegiality, builds community among active historians and other members of communities, and recognizes the public responsibilities of the historian.”

Supported by the Government of Canada’s Canada History Fund, the Canadian Historical Association, and the Canadian Committee on Labour History, Active History on Display is the product of a partnership between Active History, McGill University, the Department of History and the Centre for Public History at Carleton University, HistoireEngagé, and the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies program at the University of British Columbia.

This post is the first in a three-part series to launch the project. Below, each curator will introduce their exhibit: Laura Madokoro for More Than a Face and Edward Dunsworth for The Human Cost of Food. On Wednesday, one of the storytellers of More Than a Face, arts and culture advocate, , Fung Ling Feimo, will introduce that exhibit. On Thursday, award-winning public historian Gilberto Fernandes will introduce and comment on The Human Cost of Food. 

Generation book preserved by , Fung Ling Feimo. Source: More Than a Face Exhibit.

More Than a Face

The first exhibit, More than a Face, explores Asian Canadian history to probe at the notion of identity and the meaning of community in Canada. Unlike in the United States, where the notion of being Asian American is quite established and supported by a range of academic and grassroots initiatives, the question of “who is Asian Canadian?” and what this term signifies is often difficult to answer in concrete terms. This is the result of a long history of diasporic migration, mobility, and settlement. It also stems from the sheer diversity of people and communities that associate with, or refuse, this term in various ways. These differences are often overlooked or conflated and as a result individuals and communities sometimes seek to document their distinct histories without attending to the broader idea of being Asian Canadian.

The launch of this particular Active History on Display exhibit is timely. Since 2001,                     Asian Heritage Month has been officially celebrated in Canada as an “opportunity” for everyone to “learn more about the history of people of Asian origin in Canada and to celebrate their contributions to the growth and prosperity of our society.” More Than a Face invites visitors to consider this history at multiple levels.

More Than a Face was produced by a team of graduate students at Carleton University and focuses on the contributions of nine storytellers with various backgrounds, including diverse connections to different parts of Asia as well as different generational experiences. Using a storytelling approach, More Than a Face explores themes of language, family, and community. The exhibit also includes resources for land acknowledgements, an educator toolkit, and a series of diasporic maps.

The Human Cost of Food

The second exhibit, The Human Cost of Food, documents death, injury, and illness among migrant farm workers in Canada from the 1960s to the present.

While the perils of migrant farm labour received heightened media attention during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, when thousands of workers were infected and at least nine died, there is a much longer story of the human cost of Canadian food, which this exhibit aims to tell.

The Human Cost of Food was produced by a team of nine students, who conducted research in historical newspapers from across Canada and assembled a database of over 150 incidents. We consulted with stakeholders and experts, including a former worker, members of the activist organization Justicia for Migrant Workers, and academic experts. Drawing on this body of research and consultation, we created a narrative exhibit that combines text, photographs, video, and digital maps.

The exhibit website also contains a data map, the database (in spreadsheet form), and an educator’s toolkit, complete with lesson plans for secondary school teachers.


The products of extensive collaboration between academic historians, students, and members of various communities and interest groups, these exhibits provide a deeper and more complex understanding of the histories of migrant and racialized communities in Canada.

In the coming years, we look forward to developing additional exhibits as part of Active History on Display, continuing the practices of public history and innovation that have been at the heart of the Active History project for the last fifteen years.

Laura Madokoro is an associate professor in the Department of History at Carleton University and a member of the Active History editorial collective. She is the curator of the exhibit, More Than a Face.

Edward Dunsworth is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University and a member of the Active History editorial collective. He is the curator of the exhibit, The Human Cost of Food.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.