A new exhibit at a local museum is highlighting an important piece of Canadian history which has quickly been forgotten according to organizers. 

Winston Churchill once said those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. History is such an integral part of basic knowledge and helps our understanding of the world around us. The Manitoba Museum is presenting a fantastic and historically significant project called Hearts of Freedom: Stories of Southeast Asian Refugees.

Focusing on the years 1975-1985, the exhibit tells the remarkable and often harrowing stories of refugees from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia and how they made their way to Canada. The journey often meant leaving family and possessions behind. These refugees would go on to thrive and become an essential thread to the cultural fabric of this country today.

Watch the full interview with curator Stephanie Phetsamy Stobbe and our sister station, Classic 107.



Curator has first-hand experience

Stephanie Phetsamy Stobbe is the curator of the Hearts of Freedom exhibit. She is also an Associate Professor of Conflict and Resolution Studies at the Menno Simons College at the University of Winnipeg and the President of the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. For her, this was very much a passion project. Stobbe and her family fled Laos via the Mekong River to Thailand, when she was very young. Her family made their way to Canada and eventually were sponsored to come to Manitoba.

“Many of the people we interviewed told us this was the first time that they had shared their stories … and some of them haven’t even shared their stories with their own children and grandchildren … and so it was very emotional for them."

The Hearts of Freedom project was started in 2018. Stobbe and her colleagues from Carleton University and The Canadian Immigration Historical Society were contacted by the Vietnamese community. They were very interested in documenting their history. The researchers then applied and received a grant from Canadian Heritage, which enabled them to start interviewing participants in 2019. “We interviewed people from across Canada from Vancouver to Halifax… our final interview was with former Prime Minister Joe Clarke in the summer of 2021,” says Stobbe.

Hundreds interviewed, some told their story for first time

The Hearts of Freedom project compiled 173 interviews from former refugees across Canada. The interviews were conducted in five languages: English, French, Vietnamese, Khmer and Lao. As Stobbe explains, “We wanted  the people the most comfortable speaking telling their stories in their own language to be able to do so…it was an amazing process in terms of being able to do this and conduct all of these interviews in five different languages.”

Canada was instrumental in helping Southeast Asian refugees re-settle. Stobbe states “From 1975 to 1997 Canada re-settled 210,000 Southeast Asian refugees, making it the largest and longest re-settlement of non-Europeans to Canada. This really changed the face of Canada. Between 1979 and 1980 alone Canada re-settled an unprecedented 60,049 Southeast Asian refugees. It was remarkable what the Canadian government was able to do, and the Canadian communities themselves that did the private sponsorship of refugees.”

A wide angle shot of the exhibit, with murals of photographs on the wallThe pop-up exhibition showcases the harrowing yet inspiring stories of Southeast Asian refugees who fled to Canada between 1975 and 1985 due to conflicts like the Vietnam War. (heartsoffreedom.org)

The exhibition is comprised of a variety of panels detailing the stories of refugee journeys through photographs and shared memories captured in interviews. Many of the interviewees opened up and told their often traumatic and moving stories even though they might not have even spoken about it to close family members.

“Many of the people we interviewed told us this was the first time that they had shared their stories … and some of them haven’t even shared their stories with their own children and grandchildren … and so it was very emotional for them,” says Stobbe

There is also a documentary that will be shown at the exhibit. Stobbe explains, “The film delves into their journeys to refugee camps and their experiences in coming to Canada and what they are doing now … so you go through almost their whole life ... since they escaped from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to their present lives here in Canada and what they are currently doing … we want to highlight  the successful stories of integration and what these communities are now contributing.”

Interviews, text, pictures and video are all used in the Hearts of Freedom: Stories of Southeast Asian Refugees to help educate those who might not know about what happened in Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 80s. Stobbe says that in her interaction with university students, it is evident that this essential part of 20th-century history is being forgotten.

A forgotten history

“Many of the students that I have at the University have no idea about the Southeast Asian refugees that came to Canada. Some of them may have heard about the Vietnam War, but no one really talks about the Lao secret war. [For] many of the students I would ask them ‘Do you talk about this in your social studies classes or in your other classes?’ and they say no. they haven’t learned about this and I think that is a big gap in our Canadian history.”

Thankfully, Stobbe and her colleagues who took part in the Hearts of Freedom: Stories of Southeast Asian Refugees project have done the monumental job of compiling the interviews and documenting the stories that should be told and should not be forgotten. The enduring legacy and history of Southeast Asia is important not only for us as Canadians but also to help us have a better grasp on the world we live in today.

The Hearts of Freedom: Stories of Southeast Asian Refugees runs until April 7.

For more details check out the Manitoba Museum’s Website.