Memoirs: Oral Histories

Preamble: I’m taking a a break on regular posts from January through March, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting things to read!

In lieu of regular content, I’m highlighting some of my favorite primary source materials from the last three years. Read a little, read a lot, skip through and look at the photos, it’s up to you! These are all online, so you don’t even have to venture outside into the cold.

Regular posts will resume in April.

Back in the 1960s, the “new thing” in history was to take a tape recorder into the field and ask people about their lives. As the practice of “history” traditionally dealt only with written works, this “oral history” was a bit of a change. Historians increasingly acknowledged stories that weren’t written down: a wealthy business owner produces more written records than an illiterate worker, and oral history became a way to document the experiences of that worker. The “ordinary” became historically important.

In British Columbia, a lasting feature of this oral history movement came from Imbert Orchard, a CBC editor who between 1959 and 1979 recorded around 2000 audio reels of interviews with people across the province. These recordings were used to produce documentary history programs for CBC radio, using only a fraction of the original recorded material, while the original interviews are preserved and stored at BC Archives in Victoria.

These raw interviews are a gold mine of BC history, although access to them can be a bit mixed. On one hand, if you happen to be in Victoria, you can walk into the Archives and freely listen to a digitized copy of each audio file on one of their computers. On the other, if you want to copy one of those digital files to bring home and share with grandma, you’ll have to pay between $40 and $120 (depending on the length of the interview). (If you’re looking to copy one interview, this is annoying but not horrible – for someone like myself who’s interested in ALL the interviews pertaining to a geographical area; well, I was quoted over $1,000. No, that did not happen.)

There is a sneaky solution if one doesn’t want to pay a fortune: oral histories are always, always best listened to, as listening is far more immersive than reading a person’s words, but in a pinch one can transcribe an interview. This has been done with a small fraction of these interviews, and an even smaller fraction of those transcriptions are freely available online.

Among those interviews that are available as transcriptions are the small number that were conducted with Indigenous residents of the area (through the Canadian Plains Research Center at the University of Regina). These interviews are particularly valuable (and interesting) as they contain stories and life histories that are otherwise almost completely missing from the settler record.

Of particular interest to the Windermere Valley are interviews conducted with Mrs Shelagh Dehart and Mrs Tracie Williams of the Kenpesq’t band of the Secwépemc Nation, and an interview with Chief Martin Morigeau of the Akisqnuk band of the Ktunaxa Nation.

Mrs Shelagh Dehart (née Kinbasket), 1930. Windermere Valley Museum and Archives, A173

Martin Morigeau (right) with unidentified man, 1950s. Windermere Valley Museum and Archives, A164.

Some editorial notes, as it were, before you check these out. First, these interviews by Orchard were unfortunately not focused so much on the lives of the people he was interviewing, but rather on “stories from the old days” that they had heard. In other words, there’s a lot of general hearsay in these interviews, which is very much a missed opportunity to hear more about the lives of the interviewees themselves.

Second, I’ve now listened to a large number of interviews conducted by Imbert Orchard, and while Orchard had his strengths as an interviewer, he did not have a good working knowledge of the history he was discussing with storytellers. His questions would have likely been different if he had! Orchard also does less well with interviewing women. Interviews with men tend to be long and in depth, while those with women are often brief (one reel). (In at least one case, the wife of an interview subject was sitting with him, and when she spoke up she was sharply shushed – she was also not given her own interview.)

This all being said, the interviews below are fascinating. Here’s a list of names and links for you to follow to some transcripts, followed by a list of other potentially interesting interviews over at BC Archives in Victoria, and finally a couple of books that you can find in the library!

Mrs Shelagh Dehart
Mrs Tracie Williams
Shelagh Dehart and Tracie Williams are sisters, both grand daughters of Chief Pierre Kinbasket of the Secwépemc Nation. They discuss the history of their family, especially their coming across the mountains into the Columbia Valley.
These are interviews in which listening would be better as non-English words are not transcribed.

Chief Martin Morigeau #1
Chief Martin Morigeau #2
Martin Morigeau was born on the east side of Windermere Lake in 1888, and became a well known farmer and cougar hunter in the area. In the first tape of this interview he recalls growing up in Windermere, his parents and grandparents, and various stories about the local area. On the second tape he recounts a cougar hunt.

Further Resources
Here are some further Imbert Orchard interviews with people who lived in the Windermere Valley (these don’t have transcripts available). Links are to BC Archives, where you’ll find very general notes as to content. Some are more “Valley focused” than others:

Alexander and Elizabeth Ritchie (if you’re expecting much from Elizabeth, you’ll be disappointed):

Finally, if you want to learn more about the Imbert Orchard collection more generally, and read/listen to more material from early BC residents, there have been two books published that include excerpts from the many oral histories he conducted. These also contain CDs of those interviews. Both books are available online (without the CDs), and Invermere Public Library has the first (CDs included). That volume (Voices) contains excerpts from the interview listed above with Mrs H. Williams (she has a lovely Scottish brogue). If you’d like, the other volume (Echoes) can be ordered at the library through Interlibrary Loans

Robert Budd, Voices of British Columbia : Stories from Our Frontier (Vancouver : D & M Publishers, 2010),
Robert Budd, Echoes of British Columbia : Voices from the Frontier (Madeira Park, British Columbia : Harbour Publishing, 2014),

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