African American homesteaders who arrived early in the last century make up a little known chapter in prairie history
They came, enticed by early 20th century advertisements about “the last best west” in Canada, where a quarter of land could be had for $10.
The welcome mat was out.
But when more than 1,500 African Americans arrived at the Canadian border, they were not welcomed. It became obvious that white people were preferred.
In spite of a cold reception, the prospective homesteaders made their way into Canada and settled in five major areas near Edmonton and Maidstone, Sask.
The story of these homesteaders was largely unknown and undocumented until three people collaborated on an award-winning documentary called We are the Roots: Black Settlers and Their Experiences of Discrimination on the Canadian Prairies.
Deborah Dobbins, a third generation Albertan, initiated the project. Her grandfather was one of those African American immigrants. Frank Ambler Johnson established two homesteads, one at Wildwood and another in the Athabasca area.
Dobbins is president of the Edmonton-based Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots.
“It’s very important that the history of our people be told, be recorded. Not just family stories but actually in the libraries, in the educational system,” she said Oct. 20, the day before the documentary was shown in Lethbridge.
“Immigrants that are coming here or that came here, or the Caribbean people that came here in the ’60s, they need to know that long before any other blacks or people of colour (or) black ancestry came here, there was a small group of people that were invited.
“And we helped settle Alberta and Saskatchewan, so why aren’t we in the books?”
Most of the African American homesteaders established their farms in Amber Valley (Pine Creek), Barrhead (Campsie), Wildwood (Jarawa), Breton (Keystone) and Maidstone, with a few other settlements in the Lloydminster region.
Despite that immigration, few of their descendants are still farming in those areas today. The Great Depression greatly reduced farming numbers among all cultures.
“Basically, people of African descent are an urban population,” said David Este, a University of Calgary social work professor and collaborator on the documentary.
“(There were) very few farmers and ranchers, and in the context of Western Canada, it was all based on population so in the western United States there are very few African Americans. The majority lived in the east. Farming wasn’t something that they were exposed to.”
That said, added Este, “I want to dispel a myth, because there were black farmers, there were black ranchers and there were black cowboys in the United States.”
On the Canadian side of the border, John Ware is probably the most famous African American cowboy. Este said his life in southern Alberta is well documented, but those of the settlers in northern regions are far less so.
Their lives in Canada weren’t easy from the first moments of arrival.
“When they arrived at the Canadian border, our immigration officials were quite surprised to see that this group of African Americans … wanted to migrate into Canada. So our immigration officials were totally unaware and they did whatever they could do to not allow the African Americans to come in.”
Este and the third collaborator on the project, history professor Jenna Bailey of the University of Lethbridge’s oral history project, said they were initially surprised that the homesteaders did not report the same degree of racism as was experienced by African Americans in Calgary and Edmonton.
“After really thinking about those participants and families in rural communities, it clicked,” said Este.
“We’re not saying that they didn’t face discrimination…. There was a strong feeling of community whether you were black, Italian or Ukrainian because the Canadian government was trying to get all Western Canada settled.
“But what brought these different communities and populations together is they’re all farmers, and they needed each other to work on the farm, especially harvesting, so that was the common bond.”
The challenges to simply farm and exist in the primitive conditions of early western Canadian development were exacerbated by inexperience, added Bailey. The appeal of owning land, when that was difficult if not impossible in the United States, drew them north.
“I think it was more about the availability of the land because you could get quite a large piece of land for $10. That was the offer that Canada was proposing,” said Bailey.
“So it was more an opportunity. They weren’t experienced farmers. Many of them came from urban populations in the United States but they had an opportunity, they had land, and so they made the best of it. They built homesteads and they helped build towns.”
Dobbins said her grandfather would never talk about the reasons he moved to Canada. “Trouble with whites” was as far as he would go.
Discrimination against African Americans was more covert then, she said. Her father, a journeyman electrician who supervised several apprentices, was often addressed as “boy” when working in Edmonton in the 1950s.
A phone call about renting a room would get a friendly reception, but in person, people would be told the place had been rented.
“Racism has always been here,” said Dobbins. “Now it’s more overt because there are so many more immigrants.”
That is one reason the documentary is important, she added, noting the difficulty obtaining grants to fund the project.
“The people don’t want to hear our story or didn’t know about our story and didn’t see the relevance of our story, but our story is unique and a part of Canada’s history, and if it’s not in the books, that isn’t right.”
Nineteen people, descendants of the original settlers, were interviewed for the 56-minute documentary, with effort made to gather information about each of the settlements.
Since it debuted in February, the documentary has won several oral history and heritage awards, including the 2018 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Community Programming.