Welcome to the Maltese-Canadian Museum!

After attending the Malta Day celebrations in Toronto last month, I was fortunate enough to once again visit the Maltese-Canadian Museum on Dundas, and join the Museum’s board. Living closer to Toronto than I have in a long time means I can get more involved with this Museum, and indeed the Maltese community at large, and start all sorts of new projects.

This museum is probably unknown to almost everybody unless they’re involved with the Maltese community, so please allow me to introduce you to this little gem.

The Maltese-Canadian Museum in Toronto is a living testament to the Maltese diaspora in Canada, and Maltese history and culture more broadly. As the name implies, the Museum houses displays that relate to immigration and the community that’s made a home called Little Malta, in the Junction of Toronto. The large church hall that houses the Museum contains much more than just immigration stories, though—there are Roman lamps, ancient coins, model buildings, traditional clothing (the għonnella), and much, much more. It’s run by a group of volunteers and board members who are responsible for nearly every aspect of its operations and upkeep. Heading the Museum is curator Richard Cumbo, who has dedicated his life to preserving local Maltese heritage. The Museum is also a bit of a gathering place for the community in Toronto and hosts a variety of events and programs throughout the year, most of which are open to the public.

(P.S. Join us on December 10th from 14:00-18:00 for the launch of Ash Fall, the third novel of a trilogy by bestselling Maltese-Canadian historical fiction author Marthese Fenech!)

Small snapshot of some of the immigration records on display at the Maltese-Canadian Museum

Something that’s really exciting for me is that I’m beginning a project with the Museum and Western Libraries to map Maltese migrations to Turtle Island, focusing particularly on what-is-now Canada, using the collection of the Maltese-Canadian Museum. The immigration records on display are only a sample of what the Museum holds, and I want to help make these records more accessible in an effort to share the Maltese story more broadly. This is the first digital project the Museum is undertaking and it will also serve as a digital exhibition, bringing the Museum’s outreach initiatives to a new audience and digitising some of the collection. The process of data collection for the project that will be platformed on ArcGIS is underway and will hopefully finish by mid-November. From there, the platform will be completed and then released to the public!

What particularly excites me about this project is the growth potential—it’s starting with the collection of the Maltese-Canadian Museum, but it could easily incorporate private records, oral histories, government records, and add to a more fulsome picture of Maltese migration. I’m hoping to add my own family to the database and open it to submissions from other Maltese-Canadians. I’m going to try to programme it in a way that allows users to filter where the data comes from, ie. the Museum or private collections.

Two young girls dressed as Malta and Britannia (respectively) during Toronto’s 100th anniversary in 1934. Photo courtesy of the Maltese-Canadian Museum, St. Paul the Apostle Parish.

One challenge I’m faced with in conducting this project is effectively tackling the many issues of colonialism. Immigration to Canada has been part of the colonial project that is this country itself, and as a supporter of the Land Back movement, how do I exhibit immigration history and effectively discuss the colonial nature of Canada? To further complicate things, how do I manage that whilst also acknowledging that colonialism is the sole party responsible for Maltese emigration? I’ve grown up with my nannu telling me about how the Maltese were essentially kicked out of Malta because the British stopped investing in the economy and work was impossible to come by. As I grow older and more involved in the Maltese community, I hear this story repeated frequently.

When Malta was initially taken under British control in 1800, the Maltese relied heavily on imperial policy, which promised the creation of work following the construction of the Suez Canal that brought seemingly endless streams of traffic into the island’s Grand Harbour. Malta’s economy became reliant on British investment as opposed to the trends of Mediterranean trade, which gave the illusion of security. At the beginning of the 20th century, colonial forces declares that Malta had the highest population density on the planet and drastic action was needed. Thus, the British began encouraging emigration. The British naval base at the Malta Dockyard in the Grand Harbour was one of the biggest employers in Malta, and as the navy gradually pulled out after WWII, unemployment quickly began to rise.

This is when my own family began to feel the push to emigrate and seek work elsewhere. My great-grandfather, his siblings, my grandfather, and his siblings were all reliant on the Dockyard for work. That’s where they did their apprenticeships and worked all their lives. What were they supposed to do with the Navy backing out? My grandfather considered opening his own garage, but instead was persuaded by his brother, the late Charles Puglisevich, to try working abroad. And, like many others both before and after them, they left for Canada.

As I said before, this narrative isn’t unique. It’s not even unique to Malta. But how do we effectively do immigration history whilst occupying Indigenous land? The context is different, but I’ve been trying to adapt Dr. Katherine Blouin’s strategies for “Doing Classics on Indigenous Land” as published on Everyday Orientalism (one of my personal favourite blogs). I frequently refer back to her post and the resources within to help develop my own philosophy for studying history, working in museums, doing family history, and more. But I want to share the five main “unsettling” strategies she introduces:

1. Centre the land, decentre the human

2. Expose occluded histories

3. Make space for stories, orality, and oracy

4. Learn from what Mi’kmaw elder Albert Marshall calls “Etuapmumk” aka two-eyed seeing

5. Embrace discomfort as a pedagogical tool

Dr. Katherine Blouin, “Doing Classics on Indigenous Land,” Everyday Orientalism, May 26, 2021

I’m a firm believer in the fact that if studying history doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re not doing it right. It’s Dr. Blouin’s final point that really resonates with me and I intend to use in my professional and personal life as effectively as I can, especially whilst developing projects focusing on settler-colonialism on Turtle Island.

There’ll more posts to come as I develop this. But until next time, I hope you enjoyed this post and learned something new! Come by and visit the Maltese-Canadian Museum sometime—we’d love to have you.

About the Author

Niġel Klemenčič-Puglisevich

MA Public History student at the University of Western Ontario.

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