Like many West Coast kids, David Gray spent his childhood exploring local shorelines and collecting small artefacts of a time before him.
But unlike his curious counterparts, Gray would learn the pottery and glass bottles he recovered from Tod Inlet near Brentwood Bay belonged to a now-vanished immigrant community – the inspiration behind years of research and a new documentary for the filmmaker.
Gray became fascinated with the history of Chinese and Sikh workers who once lived in the area now within Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, while labouring in a cement mill and limestone quarry where Butchart Gardens is located today.
“Over the years, I would often go out and explore in that same area and found all kinds of treasures: Chinese pottery, bottles and different kinds of remnants from this working man’s community,” said Victoria-raised Gray, who hails from Ottawa. “But I was never able to satisfy my curiosity of who these people were, where they came from and what happened to them when the mill closed.”
Gray reveals answers through archival materials, photographs, new footage of the area and descendant interviews in his film, Beyond the Gardens’ Wall, which premiers at the Victoria Film Festival Feb. 12. He found the harsh immigration restrictions placed on families who came to Canada in the early 1900s – including the inability to vote, become citizens or own land – forced many people out, while other families endured, including that of Alan Lowe, former mayor of Victoria.
“Pioneer immigrants went through all of that, survived and persisted,” Gray said. “They stayed in Canada, adapted to the Canadian way of life, were eventually able to bring their families here and over the years have made quite a tremendous contribution to the economic life of Canada, the social life of Canada and the descendants of those workers are now an important part of Canadian society.”
During the making of the film, Gray returned some of the artefacts he had collected – before the region became designated parkland in 1994 – to the descendant families located.
“The wonderful thing for me was being able to connect with people who had a vague idea where their grandfather or their father had worked and they had some information about this individual and his life out there … I was able to make that reconnection of people and place and that was exciting.”
Also a writer and arctic researcher, Gray became a filmmaker in 2007 after having used film as a research tool. Beyond the Gardens’ Wall is a 30-minute film funded by the Community Historical Recognition Program of the Canadian Department of Citizenship and Immigration, a program aimed at recognizing the experiences of ethno-cultural communities affected by historical wartime measures and immigration restrictions applied in Canada.
The piece is one of four completed films for Gray, a collection which includes last year’s Searching for the Sikhs of Tod Inlet and Canadian Soldier Sikhs (2011).
“It’s a very moving film about a community of people that was virtually lost,” he added.