Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Justice

Community Engagement Tool: A Case Study of the Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project

 Dr. Tzu-I Chung, Curator of History, Royal BC Museum Satwinder Bains, PhD, Director, South Asian Studies Institute, University of the Fraser Valley

The Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project is a partnership project of the Royal BC Museum and the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, aimed at identifying and defining Punjabi Canadian community history and heritage work through community perspectives in British Columbia.

This case study explores the processes of the community engagement to share lessons learnt and to provide key tips for future community engagement projects that can be adapted to your institution.


Dr. Tzu-I Chung, Curator of History, Royal BC Museum

Satwinder Bains, PhD, Director, South Asian Studies Institute, University of the Fraser Valley

Acknowledgement and Special Thanks

The authors wish to thank all the community participants in B.C. (in person or via other ways of communications), partnering memory and research institutions, provincial and community partners, the first and current Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project Advisory Committee members, our colleagues at home institutions at the Royal BC Museum and the University of the Fraser Valley, Dr. Scott Cooper, and our fellow project team members Janet MacDonald and Sharanjit Sandhra, and the funders H.Y. Louie Co. Ltd, W. Garfield Weston Foundation, and British Columbia Museums Association. Without their support this project would not have been possible.


Project Summary and Goal

  • Originally, the Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project was initiated by the Royal BC Museum with a goal to find ways to work with the South Asian Canadian communities in B.C. in order to preserve and share the community history from community perspectives in the museum’s mandate areas of research, collections, learning and exhibits.
  • In British Columbia and Canada, the South Asian Canadian communities shared collective experiences of discrimination and immigration struggles from the early 1900’s until the mid-20th However, this collective history has been largely under-represented in memory institutions in B.C. and Canada.
  • The Royal BC Museum’s goal was also to approach South Asian Canadian communities in B.C. not as a monolithic group, but to work with the community’s diverse perspectives on community history preservation and sharing.
  • The Royal BC Museum initiated a partnership with the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley in 2015.
  • A project community advisory committee was established. Advisory Committee members believed that province-wide community-based consultations were a prerequisite to any workplan being designed and implemented. Therefore, project funding (a philanthropy grant received by the Royal BC Museum for multicultural initiatives) originally dedicated to deliverables in areas of research, collections, learning and exhibits was redirected to support the province-wide consultations in places that the advisory committee identified with deep Punjabi Canadian roots.
  • Under the guidance of the advisory committee, the project continued to evolve and moved beyond the initial deliverables defined by the museum.
  • The Royal BC Museum continues to work with partners to support the directions determined by the community consultations that occurred over the course of two years.


The Community Engagement Process

1. The establishment of partnership

  • This type of community work typically requires at least a decade to build meaningful community relationships between the communities and the memory institution. In this case, the Royal BC Museum (RBCM), through consultations, partnered with the South Asian Studies Institute (SASI) at the University of the Fraser Valley. It is a community research Centre that was developed by and for the communities in the Fraser Valley.
  • The RBCM reached out to SASI. Following ongoing discussions on the museum and the SASI’s understandings of heritage work required for the communities, the two institutions started with a collaborative project that would link the Punjabi Canadian communities across the province in a meaningful way. SASI identified the lumber industry as the thread connecting the Punjabi Canadian experience to British Columbia.
  • Through collaborative outreach, the partners collected oral histories from Punjabi Canadian families to share in the initial project of a digital collection of sawmill and urban family food history. The project started to build trust, understanding and a working relationship between the museum and communities.
  • With the successful completion of the first collaborative project, the partnership was officially formed in a Memorandum of Understanding. Further goals were developed to reach out to members and institutions of the Punjabi Canadian communities in order to build a community-based heritage project for the Punjabi Canadians in BC.
2. The establishment of an advisory committee
  • The two partners (RBCM and SASI) first consulted through the community connections of SASI to form an advisory committee, appointed by the partners in a joint effort to develop leadership and support in the area of work. The committee included members and leaders of various community groups, activists, and community historians.

“Over the course of decades I’ve advocated for the stories and rights of the marginalized. I’ve witnessed the collective amnesia in communities that are repeating some of the same struggles today that we faced years ago. The Punjabi Legacy project is the thread that will stitch together our stories, so we can draw strength from the past and move confidently to the future.”

– Dr. Balbir Gurm, Chair, Punjabi Intercultural History Advisory Committee, September 2015

  • The first advisory committee meeting shaped the Royal BC Museum gallery intervention event in which community members took over the gallery to insert their stories into the museum space. Committee members gave advice on future directions. The emphasis was on engaging the communities in dialogue rather than by an “institutional-led” “top-down approach.” In the end, the communities defined what tangible and intangible heritage was significant for them and how these should be understood, researched and preserved.
  • The first outreach event brought the communities to the museum space, but the committee emphasized it was crucial for the project to go out to the communities as well.
  • The second advisory committee meeting shaped the first round of province-wide consultation in communities with deep Punjabi Canadian roots in BC (Phase I).
3. The consultations
  • Following the advisory committee’s directions, the project team made up of four members (two each from two partner institutions) – redirected the grant from the originally defined museum output in research, collections, learning and exhibit to the solicitation of community input on the heritage work defined by the communities.
  • The consultations focused on informal conversations as well as open-ended major questions such as “what would you like to see preserved and how?” Participants were also asked to think about what they would like their children and grandchildren to know about their family and community history and what they would like museums and archives to do to preserve and explore such history.

“You have opened a new mind for me. I had never spent any time thinking about the need to document our journeys.”

– Retired sawmill worker (Prince George)

  • The resulting consultation reports indicated the communities’ wish to continue the conversations from the consultations as well as the collection of oral histories. To meet this purpose, the partners collaborated to apply for a BC|Canada 150 grant to continue the work in Phase II of the project.
  • The consultations eventually led to the community identification of provincial legacy projects including the need to develop K-12 curriculum materials, graphic novels, academic research, digitization projects across the province, travelling exhibitions, and a digital platform for community history collections and sharing.
  • Because the scope and resources required for the identified legacy projects went beyond the capacity and mandate of a university and a museum, the advisory committee has led the charge to fundraise for the projects with the assistance from the partnering institutions.
4. Project Output throughout the process

Based on the valuable culturally relevant, important and appropriate directions of the advisory committee and targeted province wide community input, the project output deviated from the initial traditional museum planning goals, and included the following:

  • Reports from two rounds of province-wide community consultations including a provincially mandated museum’s gallery intervention event and a list of community-identified legacy projects for future planning
  • Continuing engagement with the communities in BC and with two terms of advisory committees
  • Participation and support for the South Asian Historic Places Project in partnership with the Province of British Columbia (26 historic sites in BC were nominated and are now shared on an online interactive map).
  • Digital oral history collections Punjabi Pioneer Food History Project and History across the Regions.
  • Educational material on the Royal BC Museum Learning Portal

For more information, visit the  South Asian Canadian Heritage Website

Learn more


Resources needed


Meaningful community relationships take at least a decade to build. Extensive participatory community engagement on a defined project with specific delivery date and results should be well planned and widely consulted. However, the commitment to community engagement should be long-term and ongoing with legacy (in its many forms) as a foundational aspect of any work.

Budget Considerations

Budget considerations should include the following important elements for effective engagement:

  • placing value for community’s participation/travel, food, marketing/inreach and outreach etc.;
  • communications that are relevant to stakeholders (e.g. translations, interpreters, cultural brokers);
  • organizing consultations at venues that are appropriate and relevant to the community (any cost associated);
  • report publishing and outreach of final results, including web based digital access; and
  • some form of legacy of projects beyond the time dated events.


The Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project team included two members from each partnering institution – the Head of Learning and Curator of History from the Royal BC Museum, and the Director and Coordinator from the SASI at the University of the Fraser Valley. All administrative and outreach work were coordinated by the four members.


For consultations,

  • video of project details and local announcements
  • post-it notes
  • paper boards for discussion notes and sharing of ideas
  • pens and markers
  • paper for note taker
  • visual aids for readers
  • copies of discussion questions for group discussion facilitators with advanced cultural competency (with room for negotiation on information sought and shared)
  • copies of evaluation forms (translated as well) for consultation participants at the end of consultations
  • thankyou cards

Other Considerations

For effective community engagement, museum staff time and resource commitment is required. As Lynch and Alberti (see Bibliography below) notes, “‘projects’ with limited timescales and pre-defined outcomes [preclude] heterogeneity of thought and certainly the avoidance of any ‘discensus’ that would become an obstacle in the production of the outcomes desired.” (2010,29) As such a museum ‘may benefit from setting out to develop…a set of relations and skills.” (2010,29). Such skills would include perceiving knowledge in alternative forms to traditional museum outputs, and such relations should connect beyond institutional walls. Commitment to some form of legacy is key for those that come from the Mainland of BC to outlying regions of BC. Cross-cultural competency needs to be an advanced level with inreach and outreach activities where pre- and post-project objectives are decided and met.


Lessons Learnt

(at-a-glance tool for small museums on similar projects)

  • There is always as much diversity within a group as among groups.
  • It is important to acknowledge that there may never be consensus reached on certain aspects of historical events, for example the generational gap or gendered perspectives on controversial issues. What we can do from the heritage sector is to strive to facilitate communities’ self-expressions and multiple perspectives, instead of driving for consensus. “What one stands for is based on where they sit”.
  • Sustainable and supportive funding is always an issue for most institutions. Working with funding strategically is key. Plan with flexibility as pre-defined output for community engagement work can be limiting to reaching a more holistic understanding of community needs.


Key Tips for Effective Community Engagement

  • Acknowledge that knowledge and heritage exist in many different forms and be open-minded about learning alternative forms and frameworks of knowledge, always hold respect for and acceptance of cultural know-how, and be equipped with an understanding of access to communities across the continuum of heritagization, and with recognition of certain power and privilege as a barrier to partnerships and engagement.
  • Be flexible with project outputs if you truly wish to embrace the possibilities of community-based heritage work.
  • Establishing and working with an advisory committee is an art. Consult widely and communicate about your project before the official invitation to each prospect advisor. Engage community partners from the outset and seek advice that is regionally and culturally appropriate.
  • Identifying partners at the early planning stage of your project is important – building common ground and working towards shared goals can really enhance your project output. The right type of partnerships can be truly rewarding in many ways (as we learnt from our experience). Effective and culturally appropriate communication is key.
  • The preparation work before community consultations is as important as the post-consultation review. Lessons from the review based on facilitators’ debriefing meeting and participants’ evaluation of consultation sessions can help inform better planning for future work.
  • Developing a network of community contacts for consultation invitations effectively require the determination to identify ‘unusual suspects’ – those who don’t usually attend such occasions – and it’s important to identify all usual and unusual suspects by working closely with the advisory committee and contacts in the communities as well as institutions. Reach widely through diverse networks and respond with care and attention.
  • Ongoing communications with all stakeholders, participants, advisory committee members and partners regarding the project progress and direction help with long-term relationship building as well as achieving project goals.


For more inspiration – Resources

Project information

Linking BC’s Punjabi Canadians

British Columbia Museum Association Roundup magazine 271, pp. 26-27.

The History Across the Regions Project

British Columbia Museum Association Roundup Magazine 273, pp.14-15.

Skookum Magazine

University of the Fraser Valley Skookum Magazine, pp. 14-15.




  • Gordon-Walker, Caitlin. 2016. Exhibiting Nation: Multicultural Nationalism (and Its Limits) in Canada’s Museums. Vancouver: UBC Press.


  • Harrison, Rodney. 2010. ‘Multicultural and Minority Heritage.’ In Understanding Heritage and Memory (Understanding Global Heritage), edited by Tim Benton, 164–201. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


  • Lynch, Bernadette T. 2017. ‘Migrants, Museums and Tackling the Legacies of Prejudice.’ In Museums in a Time of Migration: Re-thinking Museums’ Roles, Representations, Collections, and Collaborations, edited by Pieter Bevelander and Christina Johansson, 225–42. Sweden: Nordic Academic Press.


  • Lynch, Bernadette T. and Samuel J.M.M. Alberti. 2010. ‘Legacies of Prejudice: Racism, Co-production and Radical Trust in the Museum.’ Museum Management and Curatorship 25, no. 1: 13-35.