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Understanding Community Through History

Rossland Museum & Discovery Centre

| Chantelle Spicer | Summer vacations in the Kootenay region for me involve the normal activities of swimming (in the Slocan!), walking, reading at the waterside, and too much eating. As a newcomer to the Kootenays, it also includes getting to know the personalities and unique histories of the region.

To this end, I recently took a rainy day to visit the Rossland Museum and Discovery Centre. Nestled under Red Mountain just outside central Rossland, the centre has many ways to engage visitors with the history of the area – a history the continues to be a part of the community. A visit like this is highly suggested to all Selkirk students (and anyone really) to better understand the community and social structures we live in.

The main building holds the information centre, lovely and informative museum workers, and many traditional museum exhibits recounting the diverse histories of the Rossland area. The histories focused on are the geology. mining and industry, skiing, and some aspects of the social history from settlement onward. There is a small display that includes the Sinixt people (with participation of the Sinixt community), traditional plant use, and storytelling; however, this is a small aspect of the museum given the thousands of years of stewardship, as well as the complex contemporary relationship between the Sinixt, governments, and lands.

Grade 5 school project interpreting the “game” that was navigating life as an early Chinese immigrant

Also of small mention is the impact and importance of the early Chinese-Canadian community in Rossland. As is the case across the province, much of the infrastructure and industry of the was built on highly exploitive labour – particularly the labour of Chinese immigrants. This included the creation of the Trans-Canada railway and labour done in and around mines – not to mention the numerous social contributions of Chinese-Canadians. Though the museum exhibit honouring this aspect of history is small, there is an interesting project created by a Rossland Elementary 5th grade class on the experiences of Chinese-Canadians at the time of settlement that offers a critical look at head tax, labour conditions, and inequities in settlement communities.

There is certainly an interest in museum staff to engage with visitors in new ways, which includes shifting to more participatory exhibits and community events, reading lists in partnership with the local library, and art installations. Our group particularly enjoyed the postmaster’s exhibit in the main building where you could file or read a missing letter report (some of them were very funny) and photo booth areas. Hopefully expanding on more critical commentary and reflection around artefacts and historical moments is also on the way.

This is also one of the first community museums I have ever visited that included the role of women in early settlement. Due to the physical labour and danger of “wilderness” at times of settlement, much of this history is often given over to men. The Rossland Museum includes the history of prostitution and the (unfair) contribution of sex workers to Rossland’s annual budget. There is also a thoughtful pamphlet of early census data and the lives of women in Rossland at this time.

There is also a significant portion of the museum dedicated to industry, mining, and workers. Cominco (now Tech) funded an exhibit on the history of the refining plant and the ingenuity and motivation of early settlers dedicated to extracting resources and making money off the area. However, it is the dynamic worker’s history that was the real draw for us – for instance the miners of Rossland were the first local of the Western Federation of Miners in Canada in 1895, creating precedent for other workers across the province to fight for better and fairer working conditions. There is also an exhibit on the 1895 Rossland Miner’s Strike and its lasting effects on BC labour legislation, as it created the 1902 Trade Union Protection Act – the first legislation of its kind in North America.

Once outside the main building, there is an extensive outdoor section of the museum that at one time included a tour of the Black Bear Adit mine (unfortunately closed in 2009 due to safety concerns). There is now a demonstration on gold panning (at 1pm every day in the summer months), mining equipment, and a geologic museum.

A portion of the geological society’s collection at the Rossland Museum and Discovery Centre

Overall, this was a wonderful, engaging, and surprising day that was appreciated by our whole group from age 7-52. Please take time on the next rainy day to visit the Rossland Museum and Discovery Centre as well as any community museums in your summer travels – understanding the historical and contemporary contexts can really add to your experiences as a visitor or resident.