A Black Community

Sound Clip
J.D. Edwards Tells Why Black Americans Came to Canada

Sound Clip
J.D. Edwards Describes the First Coloured Settlements

Many Blacks left Oklahoma in early 1911 for Canada —"ninety families, totalling some five hundred people, left Okfuskee County in east central Oklahoma for Canada." According to Shepard in Deemed Unsuitable the main reasons for leaving were “because of adverse legislation, ‘Jim Crow’ work and depot laws, the ‘grandfather clause’ act that prohibits them from voting, separate school laws and others.” One spokesperson for a group entering Canada said “The people of Oklahoma treat us like dogs. We are not allowed to vote and are not admitted to any of the theatres or public places. They won't even let us ride the streetcars in some of the towns.” (Shepard 1997, 65)

Between one thousand and fifteen hundred Blacks came to Canada, settling in Saskatchewan and Alberta, attracted by the image of “free lands [in Canada] and also that everyone had the right to vote and was a free man.” Black Americans returning to the United States from Canada painted the image of a safe, law-abiding country: “There has never been a lynching in Canada. Put that to the credit of the mounted police, who administered justice so successfully that there was never any temptation for the work to be taken up by private enterprise.” This image wasn’t completely true — there was a great deal of racism in Canada. (Shepard 1997, 64)

For example, for Blacks trying to enter Canada there were strict regulations on health, literacy, and financial support. These regulations were set up on the assumption that most Blacks wouldn't be able to meet them and thus would not be allowed to enter the country. On March 21, 1911, a party of two hundred Blacks arrived at a Manitoba border station and requested admission to press on to Amber Valley, to which relatives had preceded them. The Canadian officials subjected them to the most rigorous exam possible and found that they could not stop a single member of the group. No one had less than $300 (or $100 more than the law required), all were in excellent health, and all had documented proof of good moral standing.

R. Bruce Shepard described racism in Canada as "diplomatic racism," that is, western Canadians used the power of the government of Canada to place limits on Black immigration. The most extreme example of diplomatic racism was "an order-in-council barring Blacks from entering the country" because the Black race "is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada." Even though this law was never acted upon and was repealed, "the fact that it was approved at all indicates how serious Canada was about keeping the northern plains white." (Shepard 1997, 100)

Despite such resistance, some 300 Oklahoma Blacks had already moved into Amber Valley/Pine Creek area east of Athabasca, beginning in 1910. While a few were able to find abandoned land claims that improvements were already made upon, most needed two or more years to harvest their first crop. By 1920, the average holding at Amber Valley consisted of thirty-eight acres (virtually all crops), three horses, two cattle, and houses and fence, totalling a value at $400, which although was low, was deemed sufficient by the local authorities. Like their white counterparts, the Black farmers did not spend all their working hours in their fields. Cash was always a problem for pioneer farmers, regardless of their colour, and the African Americans supplemented the family budgets by freighting, lumbering, and other jobs that were available seasonally in the area.

Socially, the three hundred Black Americans or Negroes as they were called in those times, were accepted into local women’s organizations, the chamber of commerce, the agricultural society, and the public services but they also experienced racism. Just east of Amber Valley, their farms neighboured those settled by Ukrainian and Polish homesteaders. When it came to skin colour these eastern Europeans quickly made it known that they shared the same attitudes as the dominant English-speaking groups of the Canadian plains.

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