'We are the roots': New documentary chronicles triumphs of Alberta's black pioneering families

Born in 1926, in the black settler community of Wildwoods, Jay Leffler would go on to work as Alberta’s first black electrician.

'We want people to know we existed,' says Deborah Dobbins

Jay Leffler (far right) and his siblings pose for a family photograph. (Leffler family)

Jay Leffler loved gospel music, and boy could he sing.

"He sang tenor and he could harmonize with anyone," said Leffler's daughter, Deborah Dobbins. "He even loved to whistle. He sang mostly gospel music and he liked a little country.

"He could sing almost anything with anybody." 
Jay Leffler, who hailed from the black community of Wildwood, struggled to earn respect in the trades, his daughter says. (Leffler Family)

Born in 1926 in the black settler community of Wildwoods, Leffler went on to work as Alberta's first black electrician.

He is among the men and women profiled in a new documentary, We Are the Roots, which chronicles the hardships and triumphs of black settlers on the Prairies and their descendants.

Dobbins helped produce the documentary, which will be screened Saturday during a Black History Month event from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Edmonton's Shiloh Baptist church. The event will feature opening comments from the production team, including the lead producer, Jenna Bailey, an acclaimed historian and documentary filmmaker. 

The whole documentary can also be viewed online, starting Sunday, Feb. 25, at www.baileyandsoda.com 

"It's about black settlers and their experiences of discrimination here in the Canadian Prairies," said Dobbins, the president of the Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots.

"We were able to interview people who were 100 years old, down to about 70-ish, and they told us about their experiences living here, coming here to Alberta, and growing up.

"The good things and the not so good things, and their hopes for the future, for our youth."

The youngest of eight children born to Junetta Halley Leffler and George Leffler, Jay Leffler came to Edmonton from Monmouth, Ill., in 1911. Soon after arriving in Alberta, the family left the city and took up a homestead at Wildwood.
Jay Leffler, at about 5 years old, poses with his mother on the family homestead in Wildwood. (Leffler Family)

The settlement, 115 kilometres west of Edmonton, was established by homesteaders from Oklahoma and Texas just three years after Alberta became a province in 1905.

There were no telephones or postal service, no radio. The Lefflers passed the time with plenty of prayer, school and hard work.

The family built a two-storey log house and began clearing the thick scrub and underbrush on their land.

They also had a passion for music and the gospel, and after opening their home to Sunday school helped build the community's first church, where they often played in the choir band.

'He just had to bear it'

Soon after starting a family of his own, Jay Leffler decided to move to Calgary so he could apprentice in the trades.

"He worked really hard, got married and seven children later, he moved," Dobbins said.

"He had to leave school at Grade 10, so university and those kind of things were not for him. But he knew about SAIT and he was very good with his hands.
Leffler walks his daughter Deborah down the aisle on her wedding day. (Leffler Family)

"So he moved us down to Calgary and we lived in a little trailer and he became an electrician."

After graduation, the family settled in Edmonton. Leffler was a deft electrician, and worked as a journeyman with the union for nearly 60 years before he died in February 2014.

Because of his colour, many did not respect him.-  Deborah Dobbins

Being in charge, as a black man, wasn't easy.

"He had a lot of apprentices beneath him, and because of his colour many did not respect him," she said.

"He would have to tell them what to do and they would call him 'boy' and other names like that. But he still had to get the work done … so in spite of that he had to keep his job, so he just had to bear it."

Her father was stoic about the discrimination he faced, Dobbins said. But she remembers his frustration bubbled to the surface when the Roots miniseries, which told the fictional story of an 18th-century African man captured and sold into slavery, aired on television.

"We grew up not talking about colour at all, so when Roots came on he never wanted to watch it," she recalled. "He said that it made him really angry inside about how our people were being treated, and still being treated."

Beyond his work, music was Leffler's passion. He worshiped at Shiloh Baptist, one of the few congregations open to the black community at the time. He sang in the choir and started a band, the Troubadours.
We continue our Black History Month series talking about influential black Edmontonians, remembering Alberta's first black electrician. Deborah Dobbins, the president of the Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots speaks to Adrienne about her father, Jay Leffler. 6:40
The band even recorded their own album in Edmonton in 1966.

Dobbins, who started attending the church as a baby, remembers fondly their performances before the congregation.

"They sang all the old spiritual and gospel songs," she said.  "And they formed a great group, a great group."

Telling her family's story and memorializing her father through the documentary has been a passion project for Dobbins. She hopes the film will help young black Albertans learn about their own places in Canadian history.

"We want to educate our youth. They don't know about their history, even in our own community," she said.

"We want people to know we existed. We are the roots."