Refuge Canada exhibit on loan to PumpHouse Museum

This summer and fall, the PumpHouse Steam Museum will proudly host  ‘Refuge Canada,’ an exhibition on loan from the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

Jack, 11, and his dad, St. Thomas More Catholic School teacher, Bill Forestell, learn about the history of asylum-seekers in Canada through the interactive exhibit. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell.

Opening Tuesday, Jul. 20, 2021, the fully-bilingual exhibit dives into Canada’s place within the current global refugee crisis, while bringing to light the challenges faced by refugees before coming to Canada. Moreover, it doesn’t shy away from hard questions about how refugees are treated once they arrive.

“This show is really good for Kingston in the sense that it takes a critical look at how Canada’s doing. You know, you don’t want to say bad things in Canada, but our track record is not probably as good as many think, and this show takes a good critical look at that,” explains Curator, Tom Riddolls, pointing out that Kingston is a city built on refugee history.

“We may not think of it that way, but if we think of the UEL (United Empire Loyalists), [they] greatly influenced early Kingston in that sort of English-speaking white history. With that 1784 influx of people from the states — they were considered refugees, [but] they were pushed out [of the US]. They went to New York City, at the time Manhattan was actually a refugee camp, they stayed there, [then] they were pushed out, they went to Quebec, where they stayed in camps over the winter and then they dispersed along Lake Ontario,” he says.

Riddolls points out that this caused another displacement, “By the 1830s, the local Indigenous population had been pushed back, so they went to Alderville First Nation near Rice Lake.”

“The Irish showed up in the late 1840s with the famine and struggles there,” he continues,

“We actually had several waves from Syria. Most know about the recent ones, but maybe we don’t know [that] 100 years ago we had Syrian refugees that were coming. They came in, just like they do now, they came in waves. So, Kingston has always been a place for good and bad, where we brought people in and, unfortunately, people left.”

Labelling and isolating minorities is a key tool of persecution. Nazi authorities forced Jewish people to wear these badges across occupied Europe.
This badge was probably worn by Siegfried Meyer, a German Jew who survived the Holocaust and was freed in 1945. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell.

In the immersive exhibit, visitors are faced with the multiple ways people can become refugees. Through sound, video, models, and artifacts, visitors face a journey that might be encountered while fleeing to refuge in Canada using five themes: Life Before, Fear, Displacement, Refuge, and Life in Canada.  

The frightening real-life stories of several refugees fleeing to Canada from countries all over the world make for a stark reminder of the challenges faced by our fellow humans to enjoy the rights and freedoms we often take for granted.

The exhibition shares stories of success and contributions made by people who came to Canada as refugees, and addresses misperceptions about being a refugee in Canada.  

A display tells the story of Kim Phuc who became known as “Napalm Girl” after a photo of her at nine years old became an iconic image of the Vietnam War. In 1992, she sought political asylum in Canada with only one purse and the clothes on her back. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell.

“Refugees have fed into the culture of Canada, the culture of Kingston, so much that, unfortunately, it’s not really represented that well, we don’t really see the impact they’ve had,” points out Riddolls. “The impacts and influence that those newcomers have,” he says “bring new life, new spirit, new initiatives to Kingston and to Canada. Kingston was built on newcomers.”

Refuge Canada explores important and challenging themes that demonstrate that the refugee experience is an important part of Canada’s immigration history. It also addresses many misconceptions about how easy it is to seek refuge here.

“This is not a show about how great Canada has done it,” says Riddolls, “Canadians are really good at patting ourselves on the back, but this is one of these things that you know, Turkey, Pakistan, those countries are doing far more than we are ,and we don’t recognize that.” 

Inside this small space that could be shared by two families, visitors get a feeling of the upheaval faced by refugees by sitting with Tinalbarka, a refugee from Mali, as she does schoolwork in Mbera refugee camp, Mauritania, on April 14, 2016. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell

This seems to be the summer of learning about the truth of Kingston’s history, as Riddolls expresses, “Especially looking at the Indigenous stories we are being confronted with right now, this is timely because it’s another way of looking at our own track record in our backyard in making refugees right in Kingston, and causing that shift. We might not have pushed them out of the country, but certainly, they’re the refugees in their own country. So, it’s very significant.”

Why an exhibition about refugeeism at the PumpHouse? “Kingston water pumping station always had the story of social assistance behind it. As much as it’s about pumping water, it’s also about how we can help build commerce, build connections, and build community. So, it’s not a huge stretch, if you think about it,” says Riddolls, “We brought clean water to a city, at one point, and that raised the quality of life. This show is all about trying to maintain any quality of life. I don’t find it a stretch at all.”

Private guided tours featuring ‘Refuge Canada’ are $15+HST for groups of one to three people, or $25+HST for groups of four to nine people.

Tours can be booked online at, or call the PumpHouse at 613-544-7867.

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