Calgary·Point of View

African Americans helped build Alberta, this contribution must be recognized

After well over 100 years of contributing to the development and success of Canada’s Prairie provinces, we are still considered less-than-equal Canadian-born citizens, says educator Deborah Dobbins.

Despite many generations of history here, Black Albertans can still feel nearly invisible

Deborah Dobbins's mother, Mae, sits in front of the homestead house where she grew up in Wildwood, Alta., west of Edmonton. Wildwood was the province's first established Black community. (Submitted by Deborah Dobbins)

February is Black History Month. To mark it, The Road Ahead has asked several Black Albertans to share their personal stories and their hopes for the future of this province. Our series starts today with this column by cultural and special education consultant Deborah Dobbins.

For African American Albertans, prejudice, discrimination and marginalization began when we stepped across the border in the early 1900s and it has not gone away.

To this day, society has made little progress concerning equity for people of African American Western Canadian heritage. We are descendants of the original newcomers who helped develop the province, but are still marginalized solely because of the colour of our skin.

Our Indigenous sisters and brothers have endured indignation on Turtle Island since before confederation and, finally, reconciliation efforts are beginning for their people. We are seeking justice and equity as well. 

The first main wave of Black immigrants came to Western Canada between 1905 and 1912 in response to government advertisements, but when they tried to cross the border, they were not what the government had expected.

Hostile reactions erupted with the arrival of the African Americans and, by 1911, the Canadian government passed an order-in-council referring to "any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada."

That order was not invoked officially, or put into the Immigration Act, but it signifies a powerful indication of the government's desire to prevent any more immigration of Blacks from the United States into Canada. Finally, in the 1960s, immigration restrictions for Blacks were lifted. 

Promises and hope

My paternal grandparents came from Missouri and Illinois. They came because of the promise of owning land and the hope of living without prejudice because of the colour of their skin.

My five aunts worked hard to obtain Alberta teaching credentials, and each endured many episodes of racial discrimination throughout their careers, as they paved the way for future educators, including my sister and me. 

My maternal grandparents came from Texas and Oklahoma. My maternal grandfather picked cotton, working many fields before eventually escaping the dangers of the south and making the journey with his family up through Nebraska to homestead in Alberta.

My parents were born and raised in Wildwood (originally known as Junkins), which became the first established Black settlement in the province in 1907. Wildwood is located 116 kilometres west of Edmonton. After starting a family, they moved to Edmonton for better economic opportunities. 

Edmonton was home to many African American immigrants who chose not to remain on their purchased homestead and settled in the city. 

Deborah Dobbins's grandfather, Frank Johnson, centre, worked in the fields in California before immigrating to Alberta. Johnson lived in Edmonton until he was 101 years old. (Submitted by Deborah Dobbins)

Being raised in the city also brought additional encounters with anti-Black experiences. It was often either overtly or covertly pointed out to Black citizens that we were not wanted in Western Canada.

Still, even though it meant encountering prejudice and hardships, we persevered, working hard to be accepted. 

The Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots, an organization I founded over 10 years ago, continues that work.

In 2018, we completed an oral history project supported by the Alberta Human Rights Commission that documented the historical and contemporary experiences of Black Alberta settlers with a focus on racism, marginalization and discrimination. That research resulted in the award-winning documentary film We Are the Roots.

This project has opened the door to start the conversation regarding a near invisible group of immigrants who are in their sixth and seventh generation of being Albertans.

Still less-than-equal

After well over 100 years of contributing to the development and success of Canada's Prairie provinces, we are still considered less-than-equal Canadian-born citizens, and still not recognized as being relevant to the post-colonial Alberta foundation when there are public acknowledgements or celebrations of Alberta's rich mosaic of diversity.

Our past and present experiences of unjust treatment, discrimination, marginalization and microaggressions, because of the deep-rooted, systemic discrimination practices in this country, need to be acknowledged.

That acknowledgement must serve as a catalyst for action toward social justice and equity for our citizens.

As well, there must be the deliberate and accurate inclusion of our history and the contributions we have made to the West's success added to the present Alberta educational curriculum.

Establishing the African Canadian Roots Cultural/Heritage Centre and Museum is most paramount to share the roots of the African diaspora in Western Canada, and is a step forward to reconciliation for our people.

It will affirm the importance of this unique group of Canadians who assisted in the successful development of the strong, diverse nation we all call home.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


Deborah Dobbins is a cultural and special education consultant. She is a third generation African American Albertan whose parents were born and raised in Wildwood, Alta., and whose grandparents immigrated in the early 1900s from Oklahoma, Illinois, Missouri and Texas. She is the president and CEO of Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots, a not-for-profit society founded in 2010.