Immigrant experience research guide: Special Collections and Rare Books

Banner consisting of photographs of immigrant populations: elderly South Asian Farmworkers, portrait of a Doukhobor couple, photo postcard of a Chinese vegetble vendor, and a photo postcard of Japanese children in fancy dress

 Looking for archival materials or primary sources about various immigrant experiences in British Columbia? Start your research here!

Special Collection and Rare Books (SCRB) is home to a number of archives, journals, photographs, and other resources which chronicle some of these unique stories of the immigrant experience in British Columbia. Much of the material is available online.

Despite some earlier anecdotal narratives, the first recorded European discovery of British Columbia (B.C.) is credited to James Cook in 1778. Since then, the western coast of Canada has been subject to multiple waves of settlers and migrants. Between 1858–1861 thousands of Chinese labourers were imported to support white miners by building roads, bridges, and railways—often under appalling and life-threatening conditions. Emigrants from India, mostly Sikh men from the Punjab region fleeing British rule and taxation, comprised the next wave of migrants beginning around 1904. This wave was a direct result of the restrictions on Chinese labourers; both transport companies and employers sought another market for cheap workers. These South Asian men were primarily employed in the agricultural and forestry industries. Japanese immigrants came to British Columbia around the same time as their Chinese counterparts. Although their numbers remained relatively low, these emigrants were subject to the same racism and restrictions as every other non-Caucasian community. They integrated into the workforce quickly, however, and by 1919 had come to dominate the B.C. fishing industry.

Without exception, immigrants—even naturalized citizens—were faced with fear and disdain, and denied the same rights to jobs and voting as white Canadians. The Government of Canada passed increasingly restrictive policies, fines, and additional taxes designed to keep their numbers small and prevent workers from bringing their wives and children to Canada to join them. In one now-famous incident, the passengers of Komagata Maru tried to circumvent 1908 immigration regulations and were forbidden even from docking in Vancouver in 1914. The Chinese community was faced with the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which effectively banned all Chinese immigrants from entering Canada. Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Canadians were treated much the same as their American counterparts during World War II, resulting in forced relocation, internment, and illegal seizure of property and assets.

European settlers tended to be welcomed in Canada, and British Columbia became home to several large Scandanavian, German, and Russian communities. Even these were not without controversy, however, as the activities and ideologies of the “radical pacifist” Doukhobors of interior B.C. resulted in imprisonment, destruction of property, and the government’s forcible internment of children at the New Denver compound in the 1950s and 1960s.

Learn more about SCRB's materials related to different immigrant experiences. Each entry below provides a brief description of the materials, links to archival finding aids, Library Catalogue records, SFU Digitized Collections, or links to resources outside of SFU Library.

Why are some materials "unprocessed"?

The work that archivists do in preparing materials for research use is called “processing.” This involves:

  • identifying and describing materials
  • making the materials discoverable by creating finding aids (like these pages), database records, and other tools
  • rehousing materials in archival-standard enclosures (like acid- and lignin-free boxes and file folders)

Because we want our users to know we have relevant holdings to their research, we list and selectively provide access to our unprocessed collections.

Interested in exploring an unprocessed collection? Contact us as early as possible so we can discuss details.

Archival collections

Doukhobor collection

Extent: [ca. 19 m of textual records] and other material
Archival finding aid: MsC-121. Part of this collection has been digitized and can be browsed at Doukhobor collection.

The Doukhobors fled religious persecution in their native Ukraine in the late 19th century. With the help of Leo Tolstoy and various Quakers, the Doukhobors settled in Saskatchewan. In 1908, in the largest internal migration in Canada, 5000 Doukhobors relocated to the interior of British Columbia. Doukhobors are pacifists who reject personal materialism and individual property ownership, and have a tradition of oral history and memorizing and singing hymns. The Doukhobor core beliefs brought them in conflict with the colonial government. At various times, they were disenfranchised, their marriages were not recognized by the state, their children were forcibly removed to residential schools, and the radical "Sons of Freedom" Doukhobors were imprisoned for public nudity, arson, and bombings. Their civil disobedience and violent acts began in the 1920s and continued to the 1960s. By 1980, the establishment of the Expanded Kootenay Committee on Intergroup Relations helped resolve conflicts between Doukhobor groups and Doukhobor groups and the government. There are three major groups of Doukhobors: the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (Orthodox Doukhobors), Independents, and the Sons of Freedom.

This extensive collection was compiled from multiple sources and vendors between 2001 and 2019. The collection consists of textual records, photographs, audiovisual material and other ephemera. Many items in Russian are accompanied by complete English-language translations; other items, including publications from the Doukhobor community and photographs with Russian inscriptions, are not translated.

Japanese Canadian Blue River Road camp collection

Extent: 0.35 m of textual records ; 10 architectural drawings
Archival finding: MsC-140 

Beginning in 1942, the Canadian government established a “protected area” including all territory within 100 miles of the coast of British Columbia and started the process of removing any male “enemy aliens” of Japanese descent from that zone. Approximately 12,000 women and children were sent to detention camps in the interior and, among other fates, about 945 men were sent to road work camps along the Yellowhead Highway between Blue River, B.C. and Jasper, A.B.

The collection contains administrative records, mainly correspondence, from the Bureau of Mines and Resources, relating to the establishment and supply of these camps, along with personnel records, that can provide insight into the conditions and management of the detainees.

Japanese-Canadian Historical collection

Extent: 15 photographs ; 1 postcard
Archival findingMsC-215

This collection was purchased by SFU Special Collections and Rare Books from a vendor in 2017. It consists of 15 photographs, as well as a postcard. The collection pertains to Japanese Canadians in the decades leading up to, and including, the Second World War.

Hugh Johnston South Asian research collection

Extent: 1.92 m of textual records ; 55 photographs ; 7 microfilm reels
Archival finding: MsC-183. Contents are in Punjabi and English.

Hugh Johnston was a professor at SFU going back to the founding of the university, occasionally the chair of the History department. His research interests included British and South Asian migration and settlement, the history of British Columbia, and he was considered an expert in Sikhism, Sikhs in Canada, and India-China relations. He authored several books and donated his records to Special Collections in 2016 – included in which is the research for his work.

The collection consists of correspondence, drafts of his writing, and copies of primary source material including the manifest list for the Komagata Maru.

Piers Island “Sons of Freedom” Doukhobor Imprisonment collection

Extent: 1.5 cm of textual records ; 30 photographs
Archival finding: MsC-147. This collection is also related to the Doukhobor Collection (MsC-121).

The collection offers insight into the imprisonment of the “Sons of Freedom” between 1932 and 1934 at Piers Island Penitentiary. The “Sons of Freedom” Doukhobors began as a small, radical movement to reinvigorate the faith, restore traditional Doukhobor values, and protest the sale of land, education, citizenship, and registration of vital statistics. They would achieve infamy through civil disobedience, nude marches, and burnings. In 1932, over 600 Sons of Freedom protestors were convicted of public nudity. As B.C. Penitentiary was unable to handle such a rise in inmate population, a satellite prison under the authority of B.C. Penitentiary was constructed on Piers Island to house these prisoners. The records document how the prison was set up and run and the problems that the federal prison system encountered regarding both staff and prisoners. The correspondence and telegrams shed light on the internal discussions of senior officials concerning the management of the prison and its prisoners.

The collection consists of correspondence, memoranda, telegrams, and other textual records pertaining to the Piers Island Penitentiary created or accumulated by H. W. Cooper during his career as the warden of B.C. Penitentiaries. The collection also contains photographs which were all taken at Piers Island. The textual records predominantly consist of letters to and from H. W. Cooper regarding the penitentiary, staff, and prisoners.

Ajaib Sidhoo fonds

Extent: 0.63 m of textual records and other material
Archival finding: MsC-178. Part of this collection has been digitized and can be browsed at Ajaib Sidhoo collection.

Ajaib (Jab) Sidhoo was born in the Punjab region of India in 1923. Due to his father’s protestation against high British taxes on farmlands in India, Jab’s father relocated to Vancouver Island in 1927, where he worked in the Kapoor sawmill. Jab was sent to join him in 1929, accompanied not by family but by another couple from his village. After a number of years residing amongst the Island’s lumber mills, the Sidhoo family moved to Kitsilano in the late 1930s. In 1943, Jab was attending Vancouver Technical High School when he was one of three students from his class recruited by the Canadian Air Force, becoming one of the first South-Asian Canadians to serve his country in World War II. He was trained in aircraft maintenance and worked as a fleet mechanic at bases in Caron, Saskatchewan and in the Yukon. After the war, Jab founded East India Traders in Vancouver as a wholesaler for imported carpets and goods. He founded what eventually became East India Carpets, which remains a fixture in the Kitsilano community to this day. A successful businessman, philanthropist and entrepreneur, Jab was also one of the original 100 investors of the BC Lions in 1953.

The fonds consists of  photographs, documents, sports memorabilia, ephemera and objects detailing all aspects of Sidhoo's life as a first generation Canadian, and the communities in which he lived and worked.

Digital collections

Arjan Singh Brar Collection
In 2014, nearly 100 years after the Komagata Maru episode, Mr. Amarjit Singh Brar and his family donated to Simon Fraser University Library, Special Collections and Rare Books a suitcase full of his father’s documents, scrapbooks, diaries, photographs and other unique items chronicling the history of South Asians in Vancouver from the time of the Komagata Maru. The heart of this collection is Arjan Singh Brar’s diary. Started in the 1920’s, it documents the history of the community beginning in 1904 and ending in 1947. A significant highlight of the diary is its account of the Komagata Maru episode from a South Asian Canadian perspective – recorded chronologically is the community’s response to the ship’s arrival, including the activities of the Shore Committee, and events leading to the ship’s eventual departure. Originally in Punjabi, the diary has now been translated into English.

BC Multicultural Photograph Collection at the Vancouver Public Library
This collection of photographs depicts the contributions of immigrants and First Nations peoples to B.C. The photographs feature significant events and activities such as the development of Vancouver’s Chinatown, the Chinese contribution to railroad construction in B.C., East Indians and the Komagata Maru incident, the fishing industry and Japanese Canadians, the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, and the art, lifestyles, and working and living conditions of Indigenous peoples. There are also pictures of notable individuals. This collection is contributed by the Vancouver Public Library.

Cheekungtong (致公堂) Collection
Records dating from 1876 to 1956 that focus on the activities of the Chinese Freemasons of Canada, particularly in Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia. Founded in Victoria in 1876, the Cheekungtong (or Chinese Freemasons) functioned as an unofficial organization to maintain order in the Chinese communities and assist members in need. Written 90% in Chinese and 10% in English, these records reflect their activities supporting Chinese communities in Canada; the lives and concerns of their members in British Columbia; and their ties with China.

Indo-Canadian Oral History Collection
A selection of interviews conducted with early Indian immigrants to Canada, almost all of them British Columbians, in 53 audio files. The interviews cover reasons for and regulation of their immigration to Canada; work and living experiences once in Canada; labour, legal and political issues that affected the immigrants; relations with other racial and ethnic groups; family life and adjustment to Canadian society; and ongoing links to their country of origin. Almost all interviews are in Punjabi, with a few in English and Hindi.

Italian-Canadian Women Oral History Collection
Interviews collected in the 1970s and 1980s documenting the experiences of Italian women who immigrated to Canada throughout the first three quarters of the twentieth century. Between 1950 and 1975, over 100,000 Italian women came to Canada as sojourners and settlers. This collection, consisting of approximately 100 hours of interviews, documents the experiences of Italian women who immigrated to Canada at different times throughout the first three quarters of the twentieth century. Approximately 60% of the interviews are in English and 40% are in Italian.

Italian Canadian Women Photographs Collection
A collection of archival images dating from 1950 to 1975 celebrating the contributions of Italian women immigrants to Canadian history and culture. In 1948, Canada began accepting family-sponsored Italian immigrants. Between 1950 and 1975, over 100,000 Italian women came as sojourners and settlers to their new country. Hardworking and very family-oriented, these women contributed substantially to community building, economic growth and social stability. This collection contains a selection of archival images from the period. Some items with text are in English, others are in Italian.

Japanese Canadian Oral History Collection
The collection is comprised of interviews conducted by the National Nikkei Museum & Heritage Centre with Japanese Canadians on topics ranging from early immigration; their participation in pre-World War II industries including fishing, farming, and the lumber industries; and their internment during World War II. The collection is a rich source for the study of ethnic history, B.C. history, Japanese Canadian history, immigration history, and oral history at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. The majority of audio files are in English, but some are in Japanese.

Newspapers and journals

Special Collections is home to a number of historical newspapers and journals published by various ethnic or community groups. A selection of relevant titles is listed below, but the entire catalog of available newspaper publications can be found at SFU Digitized Newspapers: Immigrant Experience. They provide insight into the landscape of the immigration experience in Canada in the 20th century.

Canadian India Times
Although the older Punjabi community of British Columbia is better known, an influx of post-war Indo-Canadian immigrants to Toronto and other Eastern Canadian cities created a vibrant and diverse South Asian population. In addition to immigrants from all over the Indian sub-continent, significant groups arrived from intermediary locations where South Asians were established minorities for generations, notably Fiji, the Caribbean, and East Africa.

To serve this community the Canadian India Times was published from 1967 to 1981, twice monthly, in Toronto (of which the years 1975-1981 are available here). By choosing to publish in English it avoided limiting its readership to a single linguistic or cultural group within the South Asian community. Its focus on immigration policy, racism and workplace discrimination spoke to all new immigrants. It also covered general news from India, Indo-Canadian achievements, and carefully discussed relations between India and other South Asian countries.

Chinatown News (埠華)
The Chinatown News was an English-language biweekly magazine founded by Roy Mah and published by the Chinese Publicity Bureau in Vancouver, British Columbia. Roy Mah was an active member of many Chinese-Canadian organizations, including the Chinese Veterans, and was a proud first generation Canadian. The Chinatown News represented the interests of the English-speaking Chinese-Canadians in Vancouver, but had an international scope and was inclusive of all people of Chinese heritage. The publication was consistent in its effort to construct a distinct Chinese-Canadian identity and was a principal instrument of reclaiming a culture for Chinese-Canadians.

Chinese Times (大漢公報)
The Chinese Times newspaper was published in Vancouver daily from 1914 to 1992; it covered both local information and news about China and Asia generally. As the longest-running newspaper in the largest Chinese community in Canada, the Chinese Times was uniquely situated to reflect the adaptation of immigrants to Canada. This collection contains issues dating from 1915-1992.

The New Canadian
Published from 1939 to 2001, first in Vancouver, then in Kaslo, B.C., later in Winnipeg, and finally in Toronto, the newspaper follows the path of Japanese-Canadians during their eviction from the West Coast and their detention in a series of facilities in B.C.’s interior and the Prairies. Meant to voice the concerns specifically of Canadian-born children of immigrants, the paper eventually encompassed a broader mandate, for example by adding a Japanese-language section in 1942. Its pages are filled with news regarding the relocation, settlement, and economic conditions of the uprooted Japanese community, as well as its legal and political position, labour opportunities, and continued expressions of Japanese culture. The years of this paper available here—from its beginning to 1985—are a unique and moving record of a community both trapped by world events and making its own creative response to the forces engulfing it.

Tairiku Jiho (大陸時報) = The Continental Times
In the years between 1891 and 1937, Canada received over 30,000 immigrants from Japan, almost all of whom settled in British Columbia; in 1941, more than 95% of people of Japanese descent lived in that province. Following the internment of Japanese Canadians in British Columbia during the Second World War, some of these individuals re-located to other areas of the country, particularly the provinces of Ontario and Alberta.

The Tairiku Jiho (Continental Times) was a semi-weekly Japanese and English-language newspaper published in Toronto between December 3, 1948 and March 30, 1982. Managed by Yoriki and Midori Iwasaki, it was the successor to the Japanese-language Tairiku Nippo (The Continental Daily News), which was published in Vancouver, British Columbia between 1902 and December 1941, when the outbreak of war in the Pacific resulted in a government ban on the publication of Japanese-language newspapers. The Tairiku Jiho served the Issei, or first-generation Japanese. From 1974 onwards, it was published by McLaren Micropublishing. In April 1982, it was superseded by the semi-weekly Kanada Taimusu (Canada Times), published by Harry Kunio Taba until May 1998. The entire run of the Tairiku Jiho has been digitized and is made available here.

Books and other published material

Special Collections and Rare Books is also home to a number of monographs and journals that relate to the immigrant experience in British Columbia. The following subject heading links will lead you to resources in Special Collections. Try your own search, or expand to include all of the library’s collections.

Other useful links: Beyond SCRB

SFU Library research guides

Need other resources beyond Special Collections and Rare Books, including current resources on this topic? SFU's subject specialist librarians create research and subject guides to recommend the best resources for your discipline, and the best search strategies, whether you are looking for books or searching specialised databases. Related subject guides include:


The Wallace B. Chung and Madeline H. Collection
Over 25,000 rare and unique items, including documents, books, maps, posters, paintings, photographs, tableware, and other artifacts related to early British Columbia history, immigration and settlement, particularly of Chinese people in North America, and the Canadian Pacific Railway Company.

Archives Association of British Columbia: BC Historical Photographs Online
Annotated links to photograph databases and virtual galleries developed by archival institutions in B.C, many related to immigrant communities.

Early Encounters in North America
Prints, drawings, paintings, maps, bibliographies, photographs, letters, diaries, memoirs, and accounts of early encounters in North America from 1534 to 1850. It includes perspectives of explorers, Indigenous peoples, missionaries, officials, slaves, soldiers, and traders.

The Japanese Canadian Pioneers of Lake Country, British Columbia, 1899-1939
Virtual exhibit and database containing photographs, videos, interviews, and documentation that portrays the arrival, experiences, hardships, and above all, the quiet dignity and perseverance with which the Japanese Canadians met the challenges of this new land of Canada.

Komagata Maru: Continuing the Journey
Resources and contextual information relating to the Komagata Maru incident of 1914. Includes diaries, images, newspaper articles, rare government documents, publications, videos, and audio recordings. Also included is an interactive timeline and passenger list, lesson plans, and bibliographies. This website was originally hosted by Special Collections, but its content was transferred to the South Asian Studies Institute at the Unviersity of the Fraser Valley.

Migration to New Worlds
Letters, travel journals, diaries and oral histories, scrapbooks, government papers, hand-drawn maps, watercolours, objects, emigration pamphlets, shipping papers, and rare printed materials on migration from Great Britain, Ireland, mainland Europe, and Asia to the New World and Australasia between 1880 and 1924.

Multicultural Canada
Newspapers, interviews, photographs, print and material culture documenting first-hand accounts of first generation immigrants and their early experiences in Canada.

North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries, and Oral Histories
Personal narratives of immigrants who came to North America between 1800 and 1950.

Reference works + websites