Saskatchewan·Black Prairies

Reflections on Black Prairie life: The good, the bad and the esoteric

We asked 15 people to share their stories about life on the Prairies as Black folks. Their answers challenged the idea of a singular Black Prairie experience.

15 voices, 15 Black Prairie experiences

Reflections on Black life is an audio exploration featuring voices from all three Prairie provinces. It includes everyone from a teenager in small-town Saskatchewan to people in their 50s scattered across Canada. (CBC Graphics)

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.


What is the Black Prairie experience? We asked 15 people to share their stories about life on the Prairies as Black folks. Their answers, like this project, challenged the idea of a singular Black Prairie experience. There are common themes — the breathtaking delight of the Prairie sky, the constant heavy burden of systemic racism — but there are also contradictions, demonstrating the push and pull of claiming the Prairies as “home.” 39:51

What is the Black Prairie experience?

Throughout the Black on the Prairies project, we've explored dozens of stories about people marked by migration, people with intersecting identities, trailblazers, musicians, organizers, designers, parents and many more.

But no one project can ever encompass the full spectrum of the Black experience on the Prairies. 

We asked 15 people to share their stories about life on the Prairies as Black folks. Their answers, like this project, challenged the idea of a singular Black Prairie experience. 

There are common themes — the breathtaking delight of the Prairie sky, the constant heavy burden of systemic racism — but there are also contradictions, demonstrating the push and pull of claiming the Prairies as "home."

Meet the people who shared their stories as part of our audio exploration of Black Prairie life and read a snippet of their reflections.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

'Someone gave us some moose meat'

Amara Brown (left) and her mother Sheena Brown moved to Yorkton, Sask., from Jamaica in 2016. (Submitted by Sheena and Amara Brown)

Within the second week moving here from Jamaica to Yorkton, someone gave us some moose meat. It was just a gift, genuinely a gift. I remember it was ground moose meat, and also, I think, sausages. 

We cooked it up and it was a pretty good meal. We added our own Jamaican flavour to it, some spices and seasoning. Within the first bite, my experience was like, only in Saskatchewan.

Sheena Brown, Yorkton, Sask. (Treaty 4)

[The] majority of the people in this town are white and they're not really the type of white people to want to sit down and talk about racism with you. They're kind of like, "let's not get too political." The weather is a safer topic. The weather, canola farmers, wheat farmers, whatever else, safe topics. 

The minute you bring up racism, they kind of just go into a panic mode. The ability to talk about issues that affect you, I think helps to create a connection to a community. When you cannot talk about these things or just feel like it's being overlooked or not even mentioned, then you do feel that sense of disconnect, like I just got to keep this one to myself.

Amara Brown, Yorkton, Sask. (Treaty 4)

'You felt almost as though perhaps you shouldn't be here'

Best-selling novelist Esi Edugyan was born and raised in Calgary, but only discovered the history of Black Prairie life in grad school. (Tamara Poppitt)

For all of my abiding love of the snow, and of my various communities that I belonged to as a child, I did feel a little bit deracinated in a sense. I think that this played into this idea of not having a larger sense of a Black presence or Black history in the province where I was growing up. You felt almost as though perhaps you shouldn't be there — that's the sense you get — or that there is no precedent for you and therefore you feel maybe a little bit out of place.

Esi Edugyan, from Calgary (Treaty 7), lives in Victoria, B.C.

'I don't feel that connected to a Black community in Edmonton'

Jesse Lipscombe's ancestors migrated from the southern United States to Amber Valley, Alta. — one of the largest Black settlements in Western Canada — in the 1900s. (Janice Saxton)

Alberta is home for me. I've lived here all my life and am a fourth-generation Albertan. My people come from Amber Valley. 

I don't feel that connected to a Black community in Edmonton. A lot of my Black friends know where they're from, and so they have like a Jamaican community, or a Nigerian community, and they have places and things. I don't have that and I don't know what that is. 

So I do feel a little disconnected in that sense. It's tough. I have yet to find that circle. I'd love one. If you have an address or a Facebook group that will accept this homeless Black man, let me know, because I just want to make some friends.

Jesse Lipscombe, Edmonton (Treaty 6)

'There's a specific, willful, dangerous ignorance'

Dione C. Haynes was born and raised in Winnipeg, Man. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

For the longest time, and still to this day to be honest, one of the things that really agitates me is when people, white people specifically, express shock that "Oh my god, I can't believe you're from here," like, "you weren't born anywhere else." 

Firstly, people can be born anywhere in the world, as evidenced by humans. There's a specific, willful, dangerous ignorance that is grasped onto and held onto when white people insist that there are no Black people here or that we are all imports. It contributes to them forgetting that they are not the original caretakers of the land, and not only that, [but also] the way in which they have participated and continue to participate in the destruction of the land.

Dione C. Haynes, Winnipeg (Treaty 1)

'As somebody who is both Black and Cree … I often feel connected and disconnected at the same time'

Keisha Erwin's ancestry is Jamaican on their mother's side and Cree on their father's. They recently spent time living on reserve with their father's family. (Submitted by Keisha Erwin)

As somebody who is both Black and Cree, but who is phenotypically Black, I often feel connected and disconnected at the same time. 

The majority of my family on my dad's side is still on a reserve in northern Saskatchewan. So I feel connected in the sense that I'm around relatives, I'm around people I'm related to, but at the same time, being somebody who is read all the time as Black, I feel like I can't really relate to my non-Black Indigenous family here. 

Keisha Erwin, Lac La Ronge Indian Band, Sask. (Treaty 6)

'We have the most beautiful sky'

Pamela Parker, a model who lived in New York City in the 1970s and 80s, is also a descendant of Black homesteaders who migrated north at the turn of the 20th century. (Submitted by Pamela Parker)

We have the most beautiful sky. When I went to New York, if you wanted to see the sky, you had to actually put your head up and look up over the buildings. But in Edmonton, you can be walking straight ahead and you can see the sky without lifting your head. It's so beautiful. 

Pamela Parker, Calgary (Treaty 7)

'I feel most connected to the Prairies when I'm away from the Prairies'

Ismaila Alfa, host of CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto, says growing up in Winnipeg was defined by impromptu gatherings with other Black youth. (CBC)

I feel most connected to the Prairies when I'm away from the Prairies. That's when I have to defend the Prairies to people. That's when I have to react to being the butt end of a joke. When I hear somebody talking about Winnipeg or "WinterPeg" or "Mannisnowba," I actually turn, stand up and immediately start talking to them about the amazing things that come from Winnipeg, and often educating them of the amazing people that have come from the Prairies that they may not know. 

I think of Winnipeg, of the Prairies, like my little sister. I can make fun of her all I want, I can be angry at her all I want. But if you try that? You're gonna have troubles with me. 

Ismaila Alfa, Winnipeg (Treaty 1), lives in Toronto

'I've never been held back by the colour of my skin'

Markus Chambers became the first Black man elected to Winnipeg city council in 2018. (Colin Corneau/Migrant Stories)

I was elected the first Black city councillor in Manitoba's history, in Winnipeg's history, thereby being appointed as deputy mayor of the City of Winnipeg. For me, if there is an opportunity that's out there that you're willing to work for, it can be achieved. 

I've never been held back by the colour of my skin or thought that I can't achieve something because of the colour of my skin. I just worked hard to achieve it. I may have had to work harder than others, but as I've indicated, it's something that is achievable. If there are individuals out there that aspire to political office or to be the president of their own business or company, it is achievable here on the Prairies.

Markus Chambers, Winnipeg (Treaty 1)

'Most of the time there's an unease about doing life here'

Lindiwe Mpofu moved to Saskatoon four years ago and is still searching for her Black Prairie community. (Submitted by Lindiwe Mpofu)

I think Black life on the Prairies in the future will look a lot more like freedom. Freedom to exist fully in this part of the world, freedom to own the air that we breathe, to own the ground that we stand on, to own our existence. I think the more that happens, the more Blackness in the Prairies transforms. I also think that the more stories are told of what Blackness on the Prairies has looked like in the past, the more we know those stories, the more we'll be connected to this land and connected to those that came before us and just find our way. 

I often find in my interactions with Black people on the Prairies, most of the time there's an unease about doing life here. It's almost as if people still, on some level of consciousness, are asking for permission just to be, just to exist here.

Lindiwe Mpofu, Saskatoon (Treaty 6)

'I realized that I had to leave the Prairies if I wanted to be a full human being'

Kaie Kellough left Calgary in 1998 and has been in Montreal ever since. (Kevin Calixte)

At a certain point, I realized that I had to leave the Prairies if I wanted to be a full human being, and that if I continued to be there, there was sort of a psychological place and a social place that I might occupy that really wouldn't allow me to flourish as a human being and to really become the person that I could become and do the things that I wanted to do. 

This was because of the racism and also because of the numbers of Black people that were there. They were more limited numbers and they were so spread out. I would hope that there would be more of a possibility for that to change in the future. 

Kaie Kellough, Calgary (Treaty 7), lives in Montreal

'We weren't really raised to be proud of our ethnicity'

Yalonda Saunders is a descendant of Black Oklahomans who came to Alberta more than 100 years ago. (Submitted by Yalonda Saunders)

Things weren't talked about. I felt there was not really a culture growing up and something to identify to. Me and my sister, I find we weren't really raised to be proud of our ethnicity. 

We felt a lot of shame with [skin] colour. The hair, the "good" hair, the nappy hair, kinky [hair] — all of that was always in the mix. Skin colour was talked about a lot, [facial] features, those sort of things. So for me, I didn't really know what I was.

Yalonda Saunders, Calgary (Treaty 7)

'I really wanted to be white, I'll just say that straight up'

Nampande Londe grew up surrounded by African immigrants in Winnipeg but went to a predominantly white school. (Submitted by Nampande Londe)

I really wanted to be white, I'll just say that straight up. 

I remember being six years old and praying that the Spice Girls were secretly my siblings and they were going to come get me and my mom. But the most important part of the fantasy was that they were going to come get us and they were going to unzip us, and underneath the skin we would be like beautiful white princesses. I think that shows how at such a young age, I already felt that I wasn't good enough and that I didn't fit in. 

Nampande Londe, Winnipeg (Treaty 1)

'I grew up in the Jamaican Association, and that was beautiful'

Tina 'QueenTite' Opaleke grew up in a Nigerian and Jamaican household but was especially connected to her Jamaican roots thanks to the Jamaican Association of Manitoba. (Submitted by Tina Opaleke)

I grew up in the Jamaican Association, and that was beautiful. We had dance classes every Saturday. This is where I met people who I still know today. My mom used to sing in the choir along with a lot of Prairie Jamaicans. Their mothers were on the choir as well.

Jam Hall has been a place of solace for many years, where I could go as a youth and learn about my mother's culture, about my culture, about things that I would not be able to experience because I am in the Prairies.

Tina "QueenTite" Opaleke, Winnipeg (Treaty 1), lives in Toronto

'How will things change? … More ties with the various First Nations looking for sovereignty'

Elliott Walsh, a hip-hop educator and artist, feels most grounded in Winnipeg when he gets to share the history and impact of hip hop on the Prairies. (Kevin Jones)

How will things change? More immigrants, more people with the skin colour knowing our history, our varied history, and to have it being accepted. More ties with the various First Nations looking for sovereignty or forging paths on what "here" should look like. More partnerships. More allyships.

Elliot Walsh, Winnipeg (Treaty 1)


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)

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