AFRICAN-AMERICAN SETTLERS IMPORTANT, BUT OVERLOOKED PART OF ALBERTA HISTORY

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By: Metro Calgary Published on Fri Feb 01 2013 Harsh climate, difficult soil and long, hard travel.

These were just a few of the descriptions of the Canadian West immigration officials used to deter African-American settlers from coming to Alberta in the early 1900s.

“There was no legal or official prejudice, but there were lots of barriers that they faced when they tried to come,” says Cheryl Foggo, a Calgary based author and playwright, who has done extensive research on Alberta’s Black history for several books and plays.

People of African descent had settled in Alberta as early the 1870s, working for the Hudson Bay Company and Northwest Mounted Police. The most famous early Black settler was John Ware, a rancher and cowboy, who was highly respected in southern Alberta ranching communities.

But their numbers were small, compared to the influx of African-Americans who would make their way up from the United States between 1905 and 1911.

Thousands of Black immigrants, mostly from Oklahoma, settled largely in rural areas of central Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“It was quite remote, quite cold and difficult land,” explains Tamara Palmer Seiler, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary’s department of communications and culture. “It was one of those immigration stories where people had to work very hard to clear the land. But they were able to create quite strong communities. It’s a very interesting pioneer story.”

A story partially blighted by shameful tactics used by the Canadian government to stop African-Americans from entering the country.

Monetary and health requirements were far stricter for Black immigrants than for the British or Europeans.

“The money thing didn’t work because they had the money,” says Foggo. “The people who came here were quite well prepared ... They were strong, healthy and relatively well off.”

A few Black communities, including Amber Valley and Keystone (now called Breton), thrived, yet many Albertans are unaware of this part of the province’s history. And it’s why recognizing Black History Month is still so important, says Yvette McFarlane, president of the Edmonton chapter of the National Black Coalition of Canada Society.

This is the 27th year the organization has put on events throughout the month of February, which is only a taste of the different African cultures present in the city.

“I think it is important for each country to continue to have their heritage for their children’s sake,” says McFarlane. “So that even through their children are born here ... (they) can continue it and know where their routes are coming from.”

It’s also a matter of getting other members of the community involved, though, she adds.

“My hope is that Edmonton would continue to recognize our culture and continue to give us this opportunity to have diversity and enhance the community.”

-With files from Heather McIntyre