Calgary·First Person

I grew up a Black girl in Alberta without ever hearing of Amber Valley. How does history go missing?

While students on the Prairies will continue to learn — at least for now — about the history of residential schools, this generation still will not learn that the rich Black history on the Canadian Prairies goes back three centuries. 

The whitewashing of Prairie history: If we don't know our past, we can't understand our present

Bobbie Crump and his family drive in Edmonton, Alta., c. 1918. (Glenbow Archives/NA-4210-1)

This story is part of the Black on the Prairies project, a collection of articles, personal essays, images and more, exploring the past, present and future of Black life in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Enter the Black on the Prairies project here.


This First Person piece was written by Karina Vernon, an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, who is originally from Alberta.

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I grew up a young Black girl in Olds, Alta., without ever hearing the name Amber Valley.

Amber Valley was the largest Black community ever to have existed west of Ontario. It was only an afternoon's drive away from where I lived. 

I also never heard or read about any of the self-sustaining all-Black communities founded by the 1,600 or so African-Americans who moved on to the Canadian Prairies at the turn of the twentieth century: Wildwood, east of Edson; Breton, southwest of Edmonton; Campsie, northwest of Edmonton; Maidstone in Saskatchewan. 

I grew up in a house full of books. My mother was an English teacher and high school administrator. Yet there were gaping holes in my knowledge about a significant Black history that — had I learned of it as a child — would have utterly transformed my sense of belonging on the Prairies. 

How does history like this go missing?

Karina Vernon as a young girl growing up in Olds, Alta. (Submitted by Karina Vernon)

Intentional absence

I realize now that these holes — and this lack of sense of belonging — were an intentional part of my education. 

Much like the 1911 Federal Order-in-Council prohibiting "any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada," the sanitized version of Prairie history we receive is designed to keep the Prairies as a non-Black space.

One piece of the puzzle fell into place for me in October 2020, when Alberta's United Conservative Party's plan to scrub the K-4 curriculum of residential schools and all references to "equity" made national news. Although the party backtracked, such changes even being suggested demonstrates how the Prairies' historical record is vulnerable to whitewashing.

While students on the Prairies will continue to learn — at least for now — about the history of residential schools, many from this generation will not learn that the rich Black history on the Canadian Prairies goes back three centuries. 

In this photograph from the late 1940s, farmer J. D. Edwards stands beside a grain field at Amber Valley, Alta. (Glenbow Archives)

Enslaved, indentured and free Black fur traders, voyageurs and Indigenous language interpreters were active in the fur trade on Indigenous lands since at least 1790. Black cowboys, ranchers, cooks and people like Alfred Shadd — a doctor, politician and newspaper editor in Carrot River, Sask. — helped to forge early Prairie communities.

Also absent from high school history books is the large migration of Black Americans from Oklahoma and surrounding states between 1905 and 1912.

Last month, Alberta unveiled new draft elementary school curriculum to be piloted in some classrooms this fall. It focuses on a common cache of knowledge the province says every child should know. The ministry says Black settlements and the contributions of early Black pioneers would be introduced in Grade 4.

The erasure of Black history from collective public memory is all the more egregious considering that excellent educational resources have existed for decades. 

The Black Canadians: Their History and Contributions, published in 1993 by two of the descendants of the Oklahoma migration, Velma and LeVero Carter, is an accessible primer of Black Canadian history. 

Selwyn Jacob's 1994 documentary We Remember Amber Valley is a student-friendly visual resource. 

Alberta's Black Pioneer heritage has an online treasure trove of stories and histories. 

Cheryl Foggo's recently-reissued memoir Pourin' Down Rain celebrates the Black experience on the Prairies. 

Many more pedagogical resources are available through #BlackCDNSyllabus

Our collective history denied

The lack of Black Prairie history we receive serves at once to unsettle Blackness and to produce the fantasy of a dominant Prairie whiteness. 

It perpetuates the mistaken belief that Blackness is only a post-1960s phenomenon on the Prairies. It also maintains the fantasy that anti-Black racism happens elsewhere, rather than revealing it as a constituent structure of the Prairies. 

Mrs. Booker Edwards, daughter-in-law of J. D. Edwards, teaches in Amber Valley, Alta., in 1959. (Glenbow Archives/NA-704-4)

It is not only Black students who are robbed when the richness of their histories is excised from the history books. All of us are deprived when the full complexity of our collective history is denied. It cheats us of a full understanding of our own present moment.

Restoring this Black history will help us understand the ways the Prairies have long been a site of struggle for Black freedom. For three centuries Black folks have come here in search of safety and a place where they might not only imagine but also realize a future for themselves and their families. 

We need to pass on their stories. #BlackLivesMatter in history too.


The Black on the Prairies project is supported by Being Black in Canada. For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians, check out Being Black in Canada here.

(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karina Vernon is an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, where she researches and teaches in the areas of Canadian and Black Canadian literature, Black aesthetics, archives, critical pedagogy and Black-Indigenous solidarities.

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