February is Black History month in Canada. This is a fairly new recognition despite the fact that people of African descent have been playing a role in Canadian history since the time of Samuel de Champlain. Black History Month began as Black History Week in the 1970s. By 1976 it had become Black History Month. It was officially recognized by the House of Commons in 1995 and in 2008 the Senate unanimously passed a motion to recognize the event.
Albertans are often unaware of the history of black people in our province. Most of us know about John Ware, a former slave, who became a legendary cowboy and rancher in Southern Alberta. But many of us do not know of the settlers who came and established towns such as Breton, Campsie, Wildwood and Amber Valley. Many came from Oklahoma, which became a state in 1907. The government there made it quite clear that black people would be segregated and treated differently from the white settlers who were rushing in to homestead. Many of the state’s black residents fled to Canada, about 1000 to Alberta and Saskatchewan. They did not have an easy time of it. They faced prejudice. Canadians were alarmed by the influx of these immigrants and tried various measures to keep them out. In 1911 an Order in Council would be passed which deemed African Americans unsuitable for the climate in Canada and prohibit their immigration. They also faced the difficult reality of the land north of Edmonton. Their homesteads were in heavy bush which had to be cleared by hand. The land was not overly productive and many men had to work in Edmonton to support their families. In spite of this they stayed and Amber Valley, alone among the other primarily black settlements, survived into the middle of the 20th century.
The history of the immigration of African Americans into the Prairie Provinces is a story of determination and courage. You can find out more about it in the Community Heritage and Family History collection at the Central Library. We have The Window of our Memories volumes 1 and 2, by Velma Carter, which is the story of Black pioneers in Alberta and includes the stories of those pioneers and their descendants. Another very interesting book is Deemed Unsuitable by R. Bruce Shepard which looks at the problem of racism on both sides of the border and how it affected the immigration of African-Americans into the Canadian Prairies. And, for those of you who would like to try out an old-school format, we also have a thesis on microfiche by Judith Hill, “Alberta’s Black Settlers: a Study of Canadian Immigration Policy and Practice”. (You can find other works by searching the library catalogue using the subject terms “Black Canadians History”). These works tell us a lot about the immigration of black people into Canada, but they also have a lot to tell us about ourselves and how Canada came to be. It is not always easy to read, but it is crucial to our understanding of our history and our future.