Uncovering untold stories

Jean Barman
As part of the Senior Scholars' Series, Jean Barman looks back on the successes and challenges of her career as a historian. Photo by the Department of Educational Studies

Jean Barman has heard countless stories throughout her career. But out of all of those stories, there was one that left a pivotal impact on her—one that defined her research and legacy as a storyteller.

Jean, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Educational Studies at UBC, recalls her time as a Masters student at Harvard University. It was 1962 and she was pursuing a degree in Russian Studies with a focus on Russian/African relations. Over the course of her studies, she became close with some graduate students who had emigrated from Africa—in particular, the son of the first president of Nigeria.

"Every day he'd get these newspapers from home sent by his father," she says. "And he'd chuck them under the bed in his dorm room."

This friend, Jean says, was caught in an identity limbo between reminders of home and the present—his new American life. Hiding these papers was one way for him to claim a new persona.

"He'd say, 'That's there. I'm here. The two just can't match… they don't fit together. I'm in a different world.'

"That got me [interested] in trying to understand that whole notion of people who are indigenous to a place," she says. "And, in particular, people who have some element or physicality of what makes them indigenous to a place—but then they're faced with other places, by choice or by necessity."

Research and resistance

With this new found perspective, Jean moved on to complete her Masters in Library Science at the University of California in 1970. It wasn't until she began her doctorate in the History of Education at UBC, though, that she really found her passion.

While researching for her dissertation on the history of elite private boys' schools in British Columbia, Jean came across some papers in the Anglican archives that took her in a different direction. The papers revealed how Anglican nuns from England started an Indigenous girls' school in the town of Yale. However, the school became two schools: one for white girls and another for Indigenous girls.

Jean uncovered photos that revealed distinctly different dress codes—the white girls were clothed in white dresses, while the Indigenous girls wore red dresses. She felt compelled to publish on this unknown and discriminatory history in 1984, but faced resistance from the academy.

"I wrote a little article and sent it off to a [Canadian history] journal," she says. "They wrote back and said, 'It's very good, but nobody is interested in Indians. You can't publish an article on Indians.'"

Determined, Jean sent the article to another journal, but got the same response. She soon discovered that other academics specializing in Indigenous topics had the same experience of rejection.

By this time, Jean's dissertation, Growing Up British in British Columbia, had been published as a book through UBC Press. Together with her concerned colleagues, Jean helped to persuade UBC Press to publish two edited volumes on Indigenous education in Canada in 1986 and 1987.

For Jean, this struggle to publish on Indigenous history reminded her of the indigenous experience that her friend from Nigeria tried to hide.

"It echoed back to my time at Harvard where people were living that experience, but there was no encouragement to write about that experience."

A new perspective on British Columbia's history

As she started to teach at UBC, Jean made it her mission to highlight Indigenous issues.

From connecting and collaborating with indigenous scholars to writing a groundbreaking article on the history of residential schools in Canada, her career has focused on telling the untold stories that Canadians need to hear. Inspired by journalistic storytelling, Jean always strives to connect with readers through a compelling narrative.

"I wanted to write in ways that would engage people," she says. "And to engage people, you have to tell a story."

In 1991, Jean published an ambitious history of British Columbia, The West Beyond the West, which is still regarded as the leading history of the province. In total, Jean has written or edited more than 20 books and 50 articles and chapters. Her accolades are many—from being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada to receiving the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.

Throughout her career, Jean has approached each story with care and she's continually looking for areas that she may have missed in her past publications. Her most recent award-winning book, French Canadians, Furs, and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest (2014), reveals an obscure history of British Columbia from the perspective of French Canadians involved in the fur economy.

Despite the awards and titles, Jean remains humble. She emphasizes that the most rewarding aspect of her career has been the privilege to hear and tell Indigenous individuals' life stories.

Jean's eyes light up as she talks about the events that led to her book, Stanley Park's Secret. After being featured on CBC News, a woman phoned Jean and asked that she speak with her mother in the Fraser Valley.

"Her mother talked to me for two hours about how she grew up in Stanley Park," Jean says. "I wrote it all down and she handed me a disc [which] had something like 13,000 words on it. She had written her whole story down."

Listening to her story, Jean decided to research this untold perspective. What she discovered was astounding—Indigenous families, in particular a large population of immigrant families from Hawaii, had lived in the park since the mid-to-late 1800s. In 1958, the last of these families were forced out of their homes and the park was maintained as a tourist attraction.

Initially, the park board didn't recognize this history—but when the book was published in 2005, it changed the city's perception.

"It drove the park board wild," Jean says with a laugh. "And then it won the City of Vancouver Book Prize [in 2006]… so they couldn't get too mad about it."

"It's not just our white history"

The success of Stanley Park's Secret even inspired the park to receive a new totem pole from an artist whose mother was the last person to grow up in Stanley Park. Robert Yelton of the Squamish Nation carved the park's ninth and most recent totem pole, which was added to Brockton Point in 2009.

For Jean, this pole marked a fundamental moment in the park's history.

"It was really about recognizing those families," she says. "That's where history lived.

"These are Indigenous peoples taking control of their own history. It's about a park board or the city, or whatever entity saying 'It's not just our white history of Stanley Park, as it's been for a very longtime, but it's a broader history. And you've got a place there.'"

No matter what project she is involved in, Jean is always aware and critical of her non-Indigenous status. As a daughter of Swedish emigrants to Minnesota, she admits that some may view her perspective as problematic.

"I think the most difficult thing is [recognizing] that, okay, I'm white," she says. "I'm not Indigenous by any means. What are the boundaries as to where I can and where I can't go? What are the boundaries as to what can I claim and what can I not claim? I've been very conscious about that."

As the University moves forward into its 100th year, Jean reflects on her career with hope for the next generation of scholars invested in Indigenous research. And, as always, Jean emphasizes the importance of investigating new historical perspectives.

"You can't talk about the present without having a context to it," she says.

Jean presented her talk, "Reflecting on the Pleasures and Perils of Three Decades Researching Indigenous topics as a Non-Indigenous Person," on Tuesday, September 15, 2015 as part of the Senior Scholars' Series.
For more lectures in the series, check what's on here.