Neighbourhood Arts 150: Seniors speak about the memories of a capital gone by

Brenda Dunn interviewed dozens of seniors across the region for her new book. Photo: Shawn MacDonell of Creativision.

To mark Canada 150 the folks at the AOE arts council decided they would go in a slightly different direction … away from downtown and out into the many neighbourhoods of this region. They put out a call for project submissions and eventually picked 12 that they would support. It’s all called Neighbourhood Arts 150. One of the projects was undertaken by the artist Brenda Dunn, who is a bit of a energizer bunny when it comes to arts and work. She said she wanted to interview, record and transcribe the stories of seniors living in less accessible rural neighbourhoods. Her finished book Re(place) Re(collect) is about to be launched but before that happens she spoke with ARTSFILE.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about yourself, Brenda?

A. I’m an artist living in Ottawa. I’m fascinated by community engaged projects that prompt interaction. I  make things, but I also like to make things happen. I run my artistic practice which includes showing and selling, and also workshops and interactive projects. All that lives on my website at I work with the Happening Arts Festival as their event co-ordinator, sit on the Young Arts Leaders Collective and I founded the Ottawa Gallery Map project. 

Q. Can you tell me about the genesis of this idea to interview seniors in Ottawa?

A. When the Neighbourhood Arts 150 called for submissions, I liked that it focused on drawing attention outside of downtown. The aim was to bring celebrations to neighbourhoods that weren’t necessarily going to benefit from parades up and down Bank Street.

I’ve always been fascinated by ideas of legacy knowledge and storytelling and the connection between identity and shared narrative. I was lucky enough to have a close relationship with all four grandparents as well as my great-grandmother, and still do have my Nannie living. She is a natural storyteller and the idea of going to seniors for interesting voices was really natural to me. It also made sense because I felt seniors would also be less inclined to celebrate Canada 150 downtown. I wanted to bring those two ideas together.

Q. When did you begin?

A. The project was accepted at the end of January. There are 12 Neighbourhood Arts projects in all. Mine was at its peak in the summer. It all culminates in the official launch this Sunday. The kick off for the entire Neighbourhood Arts program was in April. I travelled all over Ottawa’s rural neighbourhoods through until July, transcribing and curating as I went.

Q. What is the end product of your labours?

A. Two things: One is a website, attached to my own. I’ve been adding stories and quotes along with some photographs  captured throughout this project. The site is a teaser for the book, but it’s also a digital space that I’d like to add to infinitely. There are two buttons on the first page. One asks “Want the book?” It takes you to the event registration for the launch. The other says “Have a story?” and invites people to share something.

The book is called Re(place) Re(collect). It’s a collection of stories pulled from hours of conversations with seniors. There are  150 copies in existence; 50 are for the seniors who shared their stories as well as some of the key people who helped make this project happen. There are 100 softcover copies that will be given away at the launch. You can only get them at the launch.

Brenda Dunn. Photo: Shawn MacDonell, Creativision.

Q. Why did you do it? 

A. I think stories matter. And I think one of the most human things we can do is listen and be listened to. I see seniors as a population with a rich story to share and we may forget that. I’ve also always been fascinated with the idea of preserving or archiving something that doesn’t have an actual physical presence. Picking out little funny quotes or longer stories about a moment in time gives me a sense of participating in a community. Also, I REALLY like talking to new people.

Q. How many people have you interviewed? 

A. Oh boy … we didn’t sit them down individually. We went to a lot of events and chatted to people, so dozens and dozens. I listened to hours of recorded conversations and pulled out the “once upon a times” from there. The age range was pretty much 80+ and I think the oldest person I spoke to (that shared their exact age) was 96!

Q. Did they talk easily? 

A. Not at first. Rural folks can be suspicious of those who come barging in from the big city. We were lucky to have good ambassadors. I didn’t approach people individually. Instead, I got in touch with organizations (Eastern Ottawa Resource Centres, The Stittsville Friendship Circle, and especially the Rural Ottawa South Support services). I’d tell them what we wanted to do and they’d invite us to gatherings. They’d introduce me and my photographer and let me explain the project. I made it really clear that everyone had the choice to participate or not, and that if any one didn’t want their photo taken or would prefer not to be recorded, to just let us know. That helped, and it also took time. So we spent time.

Q. How did you overcome initial shyness?

A. I’m pretty small and smiley. That helps. I also really do love talking to people. That helps too. The biggest thing was probably that I didn’t sit in front of people with a microphone and fire questions at them. Instead, we went to euchre games, played bingo and hung out in luncheons. We’d be around a bunch and talk to folks and then put a recorder in the middle of the table and just kind of pick up the whole room. That made it harder to transcribe, but it was also more natural. People would remind one another of stories and interrupt each other and laugh. The whole thing was a lot more organic that way.

Q. Where do these folks live?

A. We travelled around quite a bit and talked to people from Stittsville, Manotick, Old Osgoode, North Gower to name a few places.

Q. Can you tell me some story highlights. 

A. I talked to a wonderful woman named Betty. She worked at the Canadian National Railway when you usually got fired after you were married. It was just kind of expected, so much so that women hid their wedding rings and tried to dodge the engagement announcements in the paper. She went in after her marriage so sure she’d be let go that she had actually already accepted another job. When they called her in, they offered to extend her contract and she turned them down because of the new position. They were so mad they told her ‘Do you know your the first woman to ever be offered a contract after marriage?’ But she’d already moved on.

Joanne told me about having to evacuate Holland in 1940. Her story is one of the longer ones, but she told me about having to hide in a little village in the northern part of the country because they had gotten lost en route. Whole families were crammed in there and they had pea soup constantly. She said she refuses to cook or buy pea soup to this day and told her husband she’d never make it and if he wanted it, he’d have to buy it.

Q. What did you think you were going to hear?

A. I thought (worried?) that people might be guarded and tell me only very factual things (I married in this year, we moved here, we had three kids) because I was, after all, a total stranger.

Q. What did you actually hear?

A. A huge breadth of human experience that I feel really humbled to have been included in.

Q. Is this the kind of storytelling that appeals to you? Why is that? 

A. I’m a millennial. Sharing is something that appeals to me and social media means that I’m steeped in storytelling and over-sharing pretty much constantly. But it tends to be the kind of sharing that stays pretty superficial, and also fairly curated and a little contrived. The authenticity of an oral narrative and the matter-of-fact way that these people told stories about serious hardship was pretty incredible. I also think that while storytelling by an older generation might be old-fashioned, the desire to share authentic experiences is pretty current. I see this as a mix of both.

Q. These are older citizens. Have we lost any due to the passage of time?

A. The whole time we were interviewing people, it was a pretty regular occurrence during the gatherings that there would be word of someone passing.

Q. What’s next on your agenda?

A. I’m the season opener for this year’s CSArt program, which is an art subscription modelled after community supported agriculture, but you get art instead of veggies. Subscribers pay for a season of arts and performance based experiences and I’m one of them. My project revolves around poking fun at traditional greeting cards with a little character named Ourson Faché and I’ve been making custom cards based on subscribers choices, which we’ll get together and mail.

I’m also the MC for the Artpreneur conference this year, and I’m part of the ARTiculations show at Studio Sixty Six in the winter. I’ll also be showing a new collection at AOE in 2018 that I’ll be working on throughout. There are a couple of other projects on the go, but those are the ones I can tip my hand on at the moment.

Re(place) Re(collect) book launch
When: Oct 22 from 3 to 6 p.m.
Where: Orléans Legion, 800 Taylor Creek Dr.
This is a free event. For tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.