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THE COME UP

Before focusing on Black history in Alberta, it should be acknowledged that Canada has a long track record of anti-Black racism. Slavery was practiced in British North America and New France (what we now call Eastern Canada), with white slave-owners buying, selling, and mistreating slaves in the same ways that their American counterparts did (MacRae). 

An announcement of the sale of enslaved Black Canadians that appeared in the Quebec Gazette in May 1785 (MacRae).

An announcement of the sale of enslaved Black Canadians that appeared in the Quebec Gazette in May 1785 (MacRae).

Slavery was abolished in 1807 throughout the British Empire, which included Canada. Following this, Canada became known for the Underground Railroad, a system where slaves escaped the United States, where slavery was still legal, and found a safe haven in Canada. While we can commend Canada’s role in the Underground Railroad, it is critical to remember its role in upholding slavery for more than two hundred years before that. Moreover, even after abolition, Black Canadians continued to face racism from Canadian government and society.

Mass settlement began in Western Canada after 1867, decades after the abolition of slavery. The Canadian government heavily advertised Western Canadian settlement, hoping to attract European and (white) American settlers to start homesteads in the prairies (Gagnon). 

In the early 1900s, the government published thousands of pamphlets, newspaper ads, and posters pushing for Americans to settle in the “Last Best West.” The deal was that settlers would pay $10 to receive 160 acres of land, if they promised to farm a certain percentage of the land and build a well and house within a few years. 

Poster advertising for immigration to Western Canada (Bruce).

Poster advertising for immigration to Western Canada (Bruce).

Incidentally, starting in 1907, the state of Oklahoma began implementing Jim Crow laws and policies that enforced the segregation and disenfranchisement of Black Oklahomans. On top of these policies, Black Oklahomans were dealing with white violence and lynchings. Meanwhile, Oklahoman newspapers were filled with the Canadian government’s settlement ads. As a result, hundreds of Black Oklahomans took up the Canadian government’s offer and began to move to Alberta (Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots; Shepard, 1983). 

When the Canadian government and public realized that Black settlers were moving in, they worked to stop the migration. A key figure in the Canadian response was Frank Oliver, Minister of the Interior and founder of the Edmonton Bulletin, a newspaper through which Oliver lobbied for the surrender of the Papaschase nation’s land and Metis land, and published numerous racist opinions (Simons, 2017). The ‘Oliver’ district in Edmonton is named after Frank Oliver. 

Oliver’s first measure to prevent Black settlement in Alberta was to have the Canadian immigration officer in Kansas, Oklahoma identify whether settler applicants were Black or white; if they were Black, the representative was instructed not to continue their application. 

Oliver then instructed border officials in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to perform more thorough examinations of Black applicants. When he saw that Black families were still arriving, he investigated how they had passed the medical examinations and found out that they had entered Canada from B.C. So, the B.C. border officials were given the same instruction as the Manitoba and Saskatchewan officials. An American consul-general in Winnipeg even found out that a medical examiner was offered a bribe by the Canadian immigration commissioner to turn away Black applicants. Despite these measures, in 1911, a large and exceptionally healthy group of Black Oklahomans crossed the border and easily passed the medical examinations (Shepard, 1983).

Realizing that the in-depth medical examinations were not enough to deter Black settlement, white Canadians petitioned the Canadian government to halt all Black immigration. Groups like the Edmonton chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, the Edmonton Board of Trade (now the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce), and chapters of the United Farmers of Alberta were among those who wrote and endorsed these petitions (Shepard, 1976; Shepard 1983).

Petition from the Edmonton chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, sent to Minister Frank Oliver, March 1911 (Walker). 

Petition from the Edmonton chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, sent to Minister Frank Oliver, March 1911 (Walker). 

Letter from the Edmonton Board of Trade to Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, April 1911 (Peel’s Prairie Provinces).

Letter from the Edmonton Board of Trade to Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, April 1911 (Peel’s Prairie Provinces).

The government of Canada responded by passing an order-in-council. Essentially, this is a law drafted by the Cabinet and passed by the governor general that does not need to go through Parliament before being implemented. In August 1911 this order-in-council, which the Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier signed off on, banned Black folks from entering Canada for one year because “the Negro race…is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada” (Yarhi, 2016). A few months later, in October 1911, the order-in-council was repealed, under the pretext that the Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, had not been present when the order-in-council was signed. However, the immigration measures designed to dissuade Black settlement continued (Shepard, 1983).

Order-in-Council banning Black immigration (Yarhi, 2016).

Order-in-Council banning Black immigration (Yarhi, 2016).

Despite the overt measures to keep Black settlers out of Alberta, the settlers who made it through successfully set up farms and communities of their own. Some lived in Black settlements like Campsie, Junkins (now Wildwood), Keystone (now Breton), and Pine Creek (now Amber Valley), and others lived in Calgary and Edmonton. These Black Albertan settlers set-up businesses, sports leagues, churches, schools, and more. They now form an integral part of Albertan history (Beaver, 2017).

L-R: Thomas Mapp, Richard Hinton, Geneva Mapp, Eva Mapp, Ferris Mapp, and Nouvella Hinton, from Amber Valley, Alberta, ca. 1925 (Glenbow Archives).

L-R: Thomas Mapp, Richard Hinton, Geneva Mapp, Eva Mapp, Ferris Mapp, and Nouvella Hinton, from Amber Valley, Alberta, ca. 1925 (Glenbow Archives).

Reading List

Black History and Anti-Black Policy at a National Level:

Canadian Efforts to Stop Black Settlement: 

  • Order-in-Council P.C. 1911-1324 — the Proposed Ban on Black Immigration to Canada

  • Diplomatic Racism: Canadian Government and Black Migration from Oklahoma, 1905-1912 by R. Bruce Shepard

  • Deemed Unsuitable: Blacks from Oklahoma Move to the Canadian Prairies in Search of Equality in the Early 20th Century, Only to Find Racism in Their New Home by R. Bruce Shepard

  • North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955 by Sarah-Jane Mathieu

Black Settlement in Alberta:

References

Beaver, Debbie (January 2017). “Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society.” Active History. https://activehistory.ca/2017/01/black-settlers-of-alberta-and-saskatchewan-historical-society/

Bruce, Jean. The Last Best West: Advertising for Immigrants to Canada 1870-1930. Canadian Museum of History. https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/advertis/ads1-01e.html

Gagnon, Erica. Settling the West: Immigration to the Prairies from 1867 to 1914. Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 2. https://pier21.ca/research/immigration-history/settling-the-west-immigration-to-the-prairies-from-1867-to-1914

Glenbow Archives. Thomas Mapp family and relatives, a Black family from Amber Valley, Alberta ca. 1925. NA-316-1. http://ww2.glenbow.org/search/archivesPhotosResults.aspx?XC=/search/archivesPhotosResults.aspx&TN=IMAGEBAN&AC=QBE_QUERY&RF=WebResults&DL=0&RL=0&NP=255&MF=WPEngMsg.ini&MR=10&QB0=AND&QF0=File+number&QI0=NA-316-1&DF=WebResultsDetails

McRae, Matthew. The Story of Slavery in Canadian History. Canadian Museum for Human Rights. https://humanrights.ca/story/the-story-of-slavery-in-canadian-history

Peel’s Prairie Provinces. The Edmonton Capital, April 25, 1911, Page 1, Item Ar00118. University of Alberta Libraries. http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/EDC/1911/04/25/1/Ar00118.html 

Shepard, Bruce R. (September 1976). “Black Migration as a Response to Repression: The Background Factors and Migration of Oklahoma Blacks to Western Canada 1905-1912, as a Case Study” (Master’s thesis, University of Saskatchewan). https://harvest.usask.ca/handle/10388/8170

Shepard, Bruce R. (1983). Diplomatic Racism: Canadian Government and Black Migration from Oklahoma, 1905-1912. Great Plains Quarterly, 3(1), 5-16. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2737&context=greatplainsquarterly

https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2737&context=greatplainsquarterly 

Simons, Paula (2017). Removing Frank Oliver’s name would whitewash Edmonton’s history, Edmonton Journal. https://edmontonjournal.com/opinion/columnists/paula-simons-removing-frank-olivers-name-would-whitewash-edmontons-history

Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots (2018). We Are the Roots: Black Settlers and their Experiences of Discrimination on the Canadian Prairies. http://www.baileyandsoda.com/

Yarhi, Eli (2016). Order-in-Council P.C. 1911-1324 — the Proposed Ban on Black Immigration to Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/order-in-council-pc-1911-1324-the-proposed-ban-on-black-immigration-to-canada