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Review

Voices of British Columbia: Stories from Our Frontier

By Robert Budd

November 4, 2013

Review By Jean Barman

Robert Budd has done us all a tremendous favour by turning serious attention to the almost thousand interviews CBC journalist Imbert Orchard conducted with a wide range of British Columbians between 1959 and 1966. The interviews have long languished in the British Columbia Archives (BCA), and now Budd shares their flavour both in print and on three accompanying CDs. Voices of British Columbia’s lengthy dominance of the “BC Bestsellers” list testifies to the appeal of Orchard’s interviews, to Budd’s ingenuity, and to wide-ranging interest in British Columbia’s history. 

Those of us who have used the Orchard interviews in research and writing will be aware of how difficult of access they have long been. Budd was at the forefront, prior to producing the book, working with the BCA to transfer the original sound recordings to CDs and to provide searchable summaries online (http://search.bcarchives.gov.bc.ca/sn-3D7A02F/search). While partial or full paper transcripts exist for only some of the interviews, the interviews themselves can be listened to in the BCA or as CD copies purchased for private use and research purposes. 

Although the sound recordings constitute an invaluable resource for probing the texture of BC life during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Orchard had, like all of us, strengths and limitations as an interviewer. He knew what he wanted, and, when subjects diverted into topics that did not interest him, he was quick to pull them back to his priorities. Orchard sought out what he termed “our great characters” (3 and CD1) and then pushed them to recall and relate interesting “incidents” (13 and CD1), making for good radio listening with a punchline. His preferences are evident not only upon listening to the sound recordings but also upon comparing the actual interviews with his broadcast CBC programs, also available from BCA. 

The saving grace from the perspective of historians is that Orchard’s subjects had their own reasons for wanting to talk. While being generally respectful of him as an important visitor from the big city who had selected them out for attention (a Fraser Valley woman he interviewed along with her parents made this point to me), they had their own stories to tell. This was particularly so with men, who were, as was generally the case in these generations, more outgoing than women. The interviews argue that many, and I suspect most, of Orchard’s subjects lived in a primarily oral culture, which meant that these stories were their stock in trade. They had been related many times before in various social settings and would be again. The stories, or scripts, were in this sense rehearsed not in anticipation of Orchard but, rather, in the course of events by these raconteurs of local knowledge, their status in the community being a good part of the reason Orchard selected them. Women were not only generally more reticent to talk but also more fearful of saying the “wrong” thing or, where couples were interviewed together, as sometimes happened, of contradicting their husbands. One of the ways women and some men dealt with the situation was to have not only an oral but also a written script worked out in advance, which is obvious from listening to the three CDs. Other times women would simply respond that they had nothing interesting to say, by which they meant nothing worthy of the public domain. In general, Orchard’s subjects are very respectful of him but not cowed by him. The consequence of the two agendas – Orchard’s and his subjects’ – is that some of the stories his interviewees wanted to tell are truncated, but those that survive even in part provide unequalled windows onto many aspects of British Columbia’s history. 

Lucky Budd, as he is known, has selected two dozen interview excerpts that move across the province and between occupations and outlooks. Reading them gives one perspective; listening to the interviewees, with their class and regional accents, manners of speaking, and intonations of voice on the three CDs, gives quite another – one that truly brings the past to life. It is to be hoped that Voices of British Columbia and its accompanying CDs will encourage historians and others to check out their own particular interests in the subject searchable summaries of the Orchard interviews as well as to become aware of the thousands of other interviews to be found in the BCA.

 

Voices of British Columbia: Stories from Our Frontier

By Robert Budd

Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre 2010.  199 pp. 3 CDs.  $35 paper