We are the Roots documentary honoured with four prestigious awards

A documentary about the experiences of Alberta and Saskatchewan’s first Black settlers has received four major awards.

Film explores discrimination endured by Alberta and Saskatchewan's Black settlers

Deborah Dobbins, Dr. Jenna Bailey and Dr. David Este are the team behind We Are the Roots: Black Settlers and Their Experiences of Discrimination on the Canadian Prairies. The film has won four prestigious awards. (Jenna Bailey )

A documentary about the experiences of Alberta and Saskatchewan's first Black settlers has received four major awards.

The film, We are the Roots: Black Settlers and Their Experiences of Discrimination on the Canadian Prairies, will receive the Heritage Awareness Award from the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation Thursday evening at Edmonton's Government House.

The film was the brainchild of Deborah Dobbins, the president of Edmonton's Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots, and premiered at Shiloh Baptist Church in February. Dobbins made the film with Jenna Bailey, a history professor and research fellow at the University of Lethbridge's Centre for Oral History and Tradition, and David Este at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Social Work.

Shiloh Baptist Church congregation, 1925, Edmonton. (Jenna Bailey )

From 1905 to 1912, between 1,000 and 1,500 African Americans fled racism in the southern United States and settled in Amber Valley, Campsie, Wildwood and Breton, Alberta, as well as Maidstone in Saskatchewan.

They faced racism in Western Canada, too. Discrimination was especially challenging when they left their rural communities for work in the city. But the Black pioneers were resilient.

Dobbins' father, Jay Leffler, was born in Wildwoods, Alta., and became the province's first Black electrician.

"Being a third-generation African-American Canadian, I thought that it was very important that our story be told here in Alberta and also across Canada. Because we have not really been talked about. Our history is not in the Canadian history books; the children don't know anything about us in the educational system." said Dobbins.

Agnes Murphy, 99, being interviewed in Shiloh Baptist Church in 2017. (Jenna Bailey )

Earlier in October, Dobbins and Bailey were in Montreal to receive the Elizabeth B. Mason Project Award and the Oral History in Non-Print Format awards from the Oral History Association.

There is another accolade yet to come — the trio is currently awaiting dates to travel to Ottawa to receive the Governor General's History Award for Excellence in Community Programming.

"It was quite difficult to get financial support for this project. I guess because we're not known, so a lot of people don't know the importance of the history. But once we got the project going, and showing the film to the majority of the people in the community, they were just amazed, astonished and couldn't understand why it wasn't in the educational system."

Johnson children in the settlement of Wildwood, Alberta, early 1940s. (Jenna Bailey )

The filmmakers are hopeful that the recognition will encourage even more people to see the film, which can be viewed online at baileyandsoda.com.

Receiving the award in Alberta -- where so many of the documentary's events take place -- is particularly meaningful.

"I think it's a particular honour to be receiving an Alberta Heritage Award because this is a really important piece of Alberta History and it's quite a lesser-known piece of Alberta History," said Bailey.

"So being recognized by the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation is significant because I think more people will hear about it —a history that's local to their area that they don't really know about."

Dobbins said she is proud of her community and proud that their stories are finally being heard. 

"We are a distinct group of people that helped settle Alberta, and we should be acknowledged and that history should be a part of the Canadian history." 

About the Author

Julia Lipscombe

Associate Producer, Edmonton AM

Julia Lipscombe is an associate producer for Edmonton's morning radio show, Edmonton AM.