Grassroots initiative aims to preserve oral history of the first Tibetan-Canadians

Deki Jamyangling was just a baby when she arrived in Canada in 1971, settling with her family in Lindsay, Ont. She was too young for a first impression of her new home, but her mother Yeshi Jamyangling certainly remembers.

“Lots of snow. Too cold!” she laughed.

Almost 50 years after her family’s journey, Deki Jamyangling is working to ensure stories of the experiences of the first Tibetan-Canadian immigrants are collected and preserved for future generations.

She is on the team of volunteers working on the Chyssem Project in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax.

The project aims to create a permanent archival record of Tibetan Canadian immigration to Canada. 

WATCH | Kelda Yuen’s story about the Chyssem Project for CBC’s Our Toronto:

A team of volunteers is working on a grassroots community project in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Immigration called ‘Chyssem Project’ to create a permanent archival record of Tibetan Canadian immigration to Canada. 5:54

They recently launched their website to collect and validate historical information and encourage the earliest immigrants to submit their personal stories, which will be included in an e-book and a virtual exhibit at the museum.

“The reason we wanted to commemorate this is there isn’t going to be another Tibetan who has that experience,” Jamyangling told CBC’s Our Toronto.

“They left Tibet when the Chinese invaded it and then spent 10 to 15 years in India. Then, after they settled some roots, [they made] a decision to come to Canada. So we feel like that’s something that’s got to be told, because that’s a pioneering thing where you’re going into the unknown.”

First Tibetan refugees arrived in early 1970s

In 1970, the federal government agreed to accept 240 refugees to resettle in Canada as part of its Tibetan Refugee Program. 

The first groups began arriving in 1971, settling in designated municipalities across Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba.

Their arrival was historic. Tibetans were among the first non-European refugees sponsored by the government to resettle in Canada.

Canada was also the second country, after Switzerland, to accept Tibetan refugees.

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“The Tibetan experience is actually a pilot for refugees that the Canadian government put in place to see how well we would assimilate — to see if it would be a good policy to bring more refugees in,” said Deki Jamyangling.

The Canadian Museum of Immigration has already collected oral histories of some of the first Tibetans to arrive, through interviews conducted last year. 

The Chyssem Project hopes to collect more through its website.

Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang meets with then-prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau in the early 1970s. Wangkhang was one of the first two Tibetans to arrive in Canada. He went on to work in the Bata Shoe Company in Batawa, Ont. (Chyssem Project)

“We’re hoping to get 20 to 30 families to write a chapter each and talk about something that impacted them; something that they want to save so that all Tibetans that follow know what the journey was like. Because coming to Canada is great, but it’s [about] capturing the whole story.”

For Deki’s mom, Yeshi Jamyangling, it meant fleeing Tibet with her family at the age of eight, travelling on foot to Nepal, and then onward to Dharamshala, India, where she worked to build roads. 

“Everybody I talk to has the same stories. But nobody wallows in the sad part. They only talk about what they can still do to make differences,” Deki Jamyangling said.

She hopes future generations will recognize the resilience of these early immigrants when the e-book is released next year.

“I hope they see the hopefulness. I hope they see that coming here you can see all the good around you, but there was always a struggle to get to that good.”

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