Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard the name John Murray Gibbon.
I first met John Murray Gibbon (historically, not corporeally) at the Windermere Valley Museum in Invermere, British Columbia. Every day I would see the music book Ballads of B.C. sitting on the ledge of an antique pump organ. There were such catchy ditties as “Down Vancouver Way”, or “Song of the Columbia River.” They’re real toe tappers with lyrics including: “My love is like a mountain lake, from hidden springs it grows. Then fed by melting glaciers, its shore it overflows…” Such gems were written by John Murray Gibbon, but beyond reading the name I didn’t give it much thought.
It wasn’t until later that I paid much attention to Mr. Gibbon. The name reappeared when I was sifting through contracts in the museum archives (because there’s nothing historians like more than dusty old land contracts). I remember running upstairs to look at the music book and make sure I wasn’t imagining things. Turns out our music aficionado was also one of the many European immigrants who bought land through the Columbia Valley Irrigation Company (CVI), a scheme intended to make the Windermere Valley into a fruit producer along the same lines as the Okanagan.
Gibbon named his new farm Cydervale, but he didn’t spend a lot of time there. He was busy in Europe heading up the advertising branch for the Canadian Pacific Railway, a position that coincidentally made him responsible for some of the advertising for the CVI venture. As an absentee land owner, Gibbon hired Mr. and Mrs. Harry Peters to manage the farm. Those names may sound familiar to long time residents of the Windermere Valley who know Cydervale by a different name: Peters Hill Farm. You don’t have to be a local to know it though. Anyone who has visited the ski hill at Panorama may remember the really steep hill after the bridge going out of Invermere. That’s Cydervale.
Meanwhile John Murray Gibbon was busy building his career. In 1913 he moved to Montréal to become the CPR’s General Publicity Agent. For almost four decades (until 1951), Gibbon was responsible for creating the public face of one of Canada’s most influential companies.
Gibbon used his influence in ground-breaking ways. Starting in the 1920s and into the 1930s, he created a publicity campaign centered around his personal interest in folk art and music. A series of folk festivals were organized across the country to encourage travel on the railway and to celebrate cultural groups. It may not seem particularly innovative today, but this was the first time in Canada that unique cultural traditions were widely acknowledged. Most people were content for cultural distinctions to disappear with industrialization. Gibbon decided to celebrate these differences.
But still, don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard the name John Murray Gibbon. Chances are you’re like me, and while you haven’t heard of him, you probably know a lot more than you thought you did.
It’s unclear when exactly the term “mosaic” was used in reference to Canadian settlement. Some sources suggest it was in the 1920s, but what everyone agrees on is that in 1938, John Murray Gibbon published a book called Canadian Mosaic: The Making of a Northern Nation. His premise was to contrast the American cultural melting pot with an image of Canada as a mosaic, where people from different backgrounds were united despite their distinct identities.
To say that the term “mosaic” influenced Canada’s immigration policies and attitudes in the coming decades is an understatement. There are Canadians who are Canadian in part because of John Murray Gibbon. His was the idea that shifted into the theory of multiculturalism. It gave entry to the Vietnamese boat people in the 1980s, and Syrian refugees in 2015-16. It was the idea responsible for the Vegreville Pysynka, the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and the multicultural dinners some of us participated in during grade school.
So don’t be surprised if you don’t know the name John Murray Gibbon. You may not remember the man, but guaranteed you know his legacy. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be like me, and the next time you drive past the tiny, forgettable farm on a steep hill in southeastern British Columbia; maybe it won’t be so forgettable after all.
Andrew McIntosh, Ruth Pincoe, and Donald J.C. Phillipson, “John Murray Gibbon,” 28 June 2007 (last edited 22 May 2015), Historica Canada http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/john-murray-gibbon-emc/
“CPR Festivals,” 2 July 2006 (last edited 6 April 2014), Historica Canada http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/cpr-festivals-emc/
Stuart Henderson, “‘While there is Still Time…'”: J. Murray Gibbon and the Spectacle of Difference in Three CPR Folk Festivals, 1928-1931,” Journal of Canadian Studies 39, 1 (Winter 2005), 139-174. (see http://www.junctioneer.ca/category/railways/ for online version)
As a footnote, John Murray Gibbon was not one to rest on his laurels. In 1923 he was among the group that came up with the idea of forming an order of horseback riders to promote travel on the mountain trails. The resulting organization, the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies, continues to the present day. Who knew?