When you first enter this exhibit, you walk into a small sitting room with a couch, a rug and a clock on the wall. Next to this is another almost identical room, but in this one the shelf is askew, pieces of drywall have fallen onto the couch and the clock is shattered. A video of refugees describing their journey to safety plays in the background.
The two rooms, meant to evoke how quickly and dramatically life can change when people are forced to flee their home, are a part of Refuge Canada, a travelling exhibit developed by the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. Having also made a stop in Brampton, Ont., the exhibit opens in Medicine Hat, Alta., this fall, before continuing its tour in 2020. The goal of Refuge Canada, according to Pier 21, is to allow viewers “to make a personal connection to the feelings of pain, danger and hope experienced by refugees.”
The exhibit also explores the ways that Canada hasn’t always lived up to its reputation as a country built on welcoming others. One panel, featuring a photo of a German Jewish family, the Dublons, describes Canada’s decision to turn away 907 refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in 1939. The Dublons are shown smiling on board the MS St. Louis, the ship that could have carried them to safety in Canada. Instead, as the photo caption informs us, “All five members of the Dublon family were killed at Auschwitz.”
More on Broadview: 5 churches doing cool things to help newcomers
Exploring this exhibit makes the issue of refugee protection feel real. Visitors can sit inside a flimsy, blue UNHCR tent, listen to first-hand refugee testimony on video and learn about how the refugee claims process works in Canada.
While Refuge Canada is historical in much of its subject matter, it is also strikingly current. As the exhibit reminds us, there are more than 65 million refugees displaced from their homes in the world today.
Refuge Canada doesn’t presume to recreate completely the refugee experience for museum visitors, but it does offer a glimpse into the real human impact of the world’s refugee crisis and looks back on how Canada has helped — and failed to help — those in need.
This article first appeared in the October 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “Searching for safe harbour.” For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.