Finding Tuvalu - Finding You!
Finding oneself has been a pre-occupation with people throughout the ages. Understanding where we came from, who we are and where we are headed is a fundamental need for us as individuals, as communities, as a nation.
Canada is a rich cultural tapestry that in fact represents the world. Esther Bryan, the artist who initiated Invitation: the Quilt of Belonging envisioned using textiles (the threads that connect our lives), to create a massive 120 foot-long work of art that showed that there is an equal place for all. The strength of humanity comes from its collective history and its diversity.
To make a great "family portrait" everyone in that family circle needs to be included -big or small, young or old, "cool" or eccentric, whether they are the newest arrival or the most long-standing one. Each member is needed to make the picture complete. Each is a precious and critical piece of the whole. Therefore, for this Canadian portrait it was critical to represent all ethnic groups including every major grouping of First Nations, Inuit and the Métis. The Quilt of Belonging would not be complete until every member was found.
Early in 1999, research volunteer Daphne Howells went through Canada's immigration records and discovered that at least one person from every country of the world was living in Canada. As political boundaries and names of countries often change, a fixed and symbolic date was established from which to identify countries of origin and the names of the groupings of the aboriginal peoples. The dawn of the new millennium, January 1, 2000 was chosen - a time of hope, a time to make new dreams, a time to shape a clear vision of the world we want to live in.
The task of finding each of the 263 pieces of the puzzle took 6 years of work and an army of volunteers. It was the most challenging, labour intensive task faced in the entire making of the Quilt, the most frustrating and yet the most rewarding. Where to start? With current privacy laws, no government list gives out personal phone numbers, addresses or ethnic background. Africa alone has 54 countries and there were 22 Arab nations to find. The former Soviet Union had split into many fragments, including what we affectionately dubbed "the Stanleys" ? Uzbekystan, Kirgystan, etc. The CEC (Canadian Ethnocultural Council) helped locate national organizations, while we contacted friends, associations, churches, ESL classes, immigration centres, ethnic shops, restaurants ? anyone who could possibly have a lead. Countless letters were written, thousands of phone calls made, while visits across Canada numbered in the hundreds.
Many roadblocks were encountered. Sometimes embassies were approached, but with great care. Current politics for each had to be checked, as sometimes their diplomats represented the hostile regime in power that was the reason people of that nation had sought refuge in Canada. What to do with countries at war? The former Yugoslavia was in the throes of brutal war and breakup. Sudan, Sierra Leone, and others were caught in violent civil war. How to earn the trust of people who have been political enemies? How to convince people who are in the throes of huge problems that making a textile block might be worthwhile and actually make a difference.
As we worked with people we encountered the same questions. "How will others see us?" and "What do we want them to know about us?" The Quilt of Belonging is so much more than textile. It is about people and becoming involved in the lives and stories of those who were making it was the most valuable part of the journey. The whole range of human experienced among its participants - war and peace, death and birth, sorrow and joy. It was amazing to see that no matter how tragic the personal experiences, how nightmarish the past memories of some were, they chose to portray hope and the beauty that was at the core of their people and their land.
The 911 bombing in New York occurred about halfway through the project. How quiet and numb we all were as volunteers slowly trickled into the project that day. We questioned whether we should continue the quilt? Was it a hopeless, idealistic dream? One of our key volunteers lost her son that day - killed in one of the Twin Towers. Her answer, softly spoken "We need this Quilt more than ever. Keep going". Silently we took up our needles and determined to continue our search.
When it came to our First Peoples, many are just reestablishing their own identity, reclaiming and writing their own history for the first time. We had learnt so little in school about them that most of their names were foreign to us. Past histories were often skewed as they were written by outsiders. In the hunt to find and engage our founding nations trust sometimes had to be rebuilt, past wrongs acknowledged and respect given for current struggles and victories. But oh what treasures we discovered along the way. Esther remembers " a lovely June morning as I drove into the beautifully kept village of Wolinak, Quebec, only 3 miles away from Trois Rivières where I had lived and gone to school for seven years. I never knew that the Abenaki lived so close, but there I met Sylvie Bernard, a wonderful contemporary artist and singer. It was instant friendship as we walked through her beautiful forest garden, talked about art, music, the world and she shared her thoughts on how to maintain her traditional roots while being fully engaged in a modern world.
The search for "all" led us to countries so small or so new that no embassy in Canada existed. We kept large maps pinned on the walls to locate these places and for some, there were literally only one or two of their people living in Canada, places like Andorra, San Marino, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Kiribati (Africa) Indian Ocean, and Sao Tomé & Principe. We tried Washington embassies, the United Nations, the Department of Foreign Affairs, appeals on television, radio and newspapers. One by one, over the years we miraculously found these "needles in the haystack". So how did we find Tuvalu? One day, during an interview on CTV, Esther named a few of the missing nations, including Kiribati. Several weeks later we received a momentous phone call. The caller identified himself as Baiaa Teagauba, Canada's only resident from Kiribati. His mother-in-law had seen the program and called him. His story? He had fallen in love with the first Canadian woman to teach on his island, and when she returned he followed her to marry her, arriving in Canada during the infamous "Ice Storm" of 1998. He recalls "Having no electricity wasn't an adjustment for me because I grew up with no electricity. But we have 40-degree temperatures year-round. The cold - that was a shock!" As we spoke, he casually mentioned that he had a close friend who came from a neighbouring island "back home". This man, Manuila Tausi, was the only man here from Tuvalu!
In any family when we discover a brother or a sister, learn more about who they are we ourselves are impacted. Our heart is changed. As Canadians, when we find the Kivalliq or Passamaquoddy, Laotians, Djiboutis or someone from Tuvalu, when we listen to their story, we broaden our own understanding, develop compassion and - find a piece of ourselves.