Is there a Barry Broadfoot walking the streets of Winnipeg, unbeknownst to anyone?
If you feel the urge to understand an issue from the grassroots level, to hear the story from the horse’s mouth, you may be Barry Broadfoot-esque, and in that case, living in Winnipeg is the place to be.
Winnipeg was Barry Broadfoot’s town, and that was Broadfoot’s obsession: oral history, the story from the eye-witness, from the horse’s mouth. According to Broadfoot, the average Canadian knew Canadian history in the real sense.
A Winnipeg native, Broadfoot obtained his BA from the University of Manitoba in 1949. During his university days, he worked in several capacities on the student newspaper, The Manitoban.
In his professional life, he served as either a journalist or editor on Canadian newspapers across the west, including The Winnipeg Tribune, The Vancouver News Herald, The Edmonton Bulletin and The Vancouver Sun.
After 17 years with The Vancouver Sun, however, Broadfoot took a bold step. At the age of 46, Broadfoot decided to begin a second career. He was inspired to bring Canadian history to the common man, from the common man. To achieve this aim, he picked up the tape recorder.
Broadfoot was looking for the untold story of the Great Depression in Canada, and to get it, he began to interview ordinary people, producing his first book, Ten Lost Years 1929 – 1939.
Upon finding that Ten Lost Years was a success, Broadfoot picked up the thread, and turned his attention to the Second World War. He used the same approach, interviewing people who had lived through the War. In 1974, he published his second book, Six War Years.
Then came a proliferation of books based upon oral history interviews: The Prairie Years; Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame; My Own Years; The Veterans’ Years; The Immigrant Years; Next-Year Country; and Ordinary Russians.
What drove Broadfoot to engage in the oral history process? It was arduous in many ways, and time-consuming.
In the modest Canadian sense, his books sold well, and found an eager readership. Broadfoot did not collect the voice of the everyday Canadian in order to make a bundle of money, but his oral history publications proved sufficiently lucrative and earned him a comfortable living.
Broadfoot was convinced by what he saw as a journalist that Canadian children were not learning their own Canadian history. From his point of view, the real story was not available to them. He remedied the problem by capturing the living, eye-witness story.
Today, in 2015, it is clear that others agree with Broadfoot’s approach.
Since 2012, there has been a movement afoot in Winnipeg towards facilitating the Broadfoot style of collecting history.
A team of like-minded individuals at the University of Winnipeg has been developing a centre where Manitobans can access the training and equipment to collect stories which need telling.
This team is the core of The Oral History Centre which is housed in Bryce Hall, at the University of Winnipeg. Located in the downtown area, the Centre is open to students and staff but also to the broader community. Be warned, however, the workshops fill up quickly.
Since formally opening its doors in 2013, the Centre has facilitated 70 projects. Seven histories have been faculty member efforts. Forty-four students have developed projects, while 45 community members have also given it a go. There are sound rooms, technical advice and equipment available to workshop participants.
Samples of the types of histories completed are available online:
Scott Price, “”Labours War- Remembering the Safeway Strike of 1978,”” video, April 2013.
Scott Price, “The Merger of locals 832 and 111: The merging of two union cultures,” video, April 2013.
Kent Davies, “A Brief History of the Harvest Moon Festival,” audio soundscape, November 2013.
The team which produced a history with the United Food and Commercial Workers includes staff technician, Kent Davies and co-directors of the Centre, Professor Nolan Reilly and Alexander Freund.
Reilly and Freund point out in their 2013-2015 Annual Report that, “we all engage in oral history practices in our everyday lives, in telling our stories or listening to others.”
“… we all engage in oral history…” That very statement may be central to the definition of oral history, but it is telling in another manner. Arguably, selectively, oral history can take a story which is apparently obvious and mundane, and by shining a documentary light can elevate the story to history. Oral history selectively gives voice to the everyday.
Reilly, Freund and company further explain in the Annual Report that, “At every step, oral history is grounded in local knowledge and is connected to global experiences. As a method of exploring the past, oral history builds people’s capacity to appreciate the complexities of history, to critically evaluate the role of history in society, and, perhaps most importantly, to participate in the making of history.”
In decades past, broadcasters like the colourful Studs Terkel used oral history to document the lives of working men and women.
Terkel revealed the heart, mind and soul of the individual, framed in everyday life. These were folks who were sometimes designated “the et ceteras” of society but were, in fact, the people in recent history who could legitimately claim they had made America great.
Chicago-based Terkel died in 2008. Robert Coles, Harvard professor of psychiatry eulogized Terkel in the New York Times as “… the most extraordinary social observer this country has produced.”
Born in 1912, Terkel published his autobiography, Touch and Go, in 2007, and in it shared his secret to interviewing people: they must feel needed.
Yes, his subjects knew he needed them, but he needed something from them as well. Terkel needed to hear their stories. He was interested.
Terkel liked to quote the American writer, Jimmy Baldwin. Terkel agreed with Baldwin that history is what we are always making. History is what we are doing, what we are living.
Terkel credited curiosity as the one attribute that kept him going all his life. Ending his autobiography on a profound note, but still typically wry, Terkel says his gravestone epitaph will read: “Curiosity did not kill this cat.” No kidding; curiosity probably kept that cat alive.
Broadfoot or Terkel. Both would say the U of W Oral History Centre is democratizing history. There is only one other university in Canada which comes close to operating a similar centre, and that is Montreal’s Concordia University.
But if you live in Winnipeg, and you are so inclined, you can emulate the great Broadfoot. Just get yourself enrolled in an OHC workshop.