Harlem on the Prairies: How Blackness is harmfully used as shorthand
Blackness, Indigeneity and problematic tropes
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 Nehal El-Hadi, a writer, researcher and editor whose work explores the intersections of and interactions between the body, place, and technology.
For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
To be a Black person living in Saskatchewan is to be perceived as an ephemeral anachronism — at best understood in relation to the groups of refugees moving through or the odd highly-skilled immigrant professional who, for some reason, decided to stay. At worst, to be a Black person living in Saskatchewan is to be a punchline, a joke.
Any other history of Blackness in the Prairies doesn't compute, although there are two centuries of it that reflect different waves of migrations and movements. This history has only very recently begun to receive external attention.
When I lived in Saskatchewan more than 20 years ago, a lot of people there — especially those in the small towns and hamlets I would visit for community outreach jobs I held — hadn't had any encounters with Black people. When I moved to Toronto, it surprised me how often people were incredulous when I mentioned my association with the Prairies.
"There's Black people out there?!"
Between the autumns of 1999 and 2003, I spent just over a year living in Moose Jaw and two years living on-and-off in Regina, where I attended journalism school. While I had many fascinating encounters, racism in Saskatchewan can be horrific and complicated, as I wrote about in an essay for the University of Regina alumni magazine, Degrees:
"There were unpleasant encounters, and some were terrifying. In addition to experiencing random, sporadic instances of explicit and violent racism, my sojourn in Saskatchewan was also a witnessing of the ugliest side of Canada. The thinly-filtered anti-Indigenous undercurrent that pulses through the landscape, that manifests in unimaginable violence."
A problematic characterization
While I was a journalism student, the Globe and Mail published a 14-part investigative series by John Stackhouse called "Canada's Apartheid" during November and December 2001. The series looked at Indigenous communities throughout Canada.
"Economically, socially, politically, culturally, we have come to accept a quiet apartheid that segregates, and thus weakens, native and non-native society," Stackhouse wrote in the introduction.
The first article, Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies, focused on policing Indigenous communities in Saskatoon. The headline references the first all-Black Western movie, a 1937 film called Harlem on the Prairie, and relies on geographic shorthand to portray the incongruency of Blackness in the American prairies. It reflects a belief in the not-belonging of Blackness in Saskatchewan, and by extension Canada, that permits the references to Harlem, a neighbourhood in New York City that was predominantly African-American (the demographics are changing now through gentrification) and was a major site for the crack epidemic of the late 20th century.
The framing of the article relies on erasing Prairie Black people and history and replacing them with a problematic categorization of Blackness that serves a particular colonial imagination.
I remember the article sparking discussions in my journalism class about negative representations of Saskatchewan in national media and its problematization of urban Indigenous communities. I don't remember race being mentioned. As the only Black person in the entire journalism school at the time, I was extremely sensitive to the ways Blackness was brought up.
I hope there's a lesson in this that leads Canadian media to examine how it continues to re-entrench systemic oppression against Black and Indigenous people.- Nehal El-Hadi
Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies stuck with me over the past 19 years because of how it represents the Canadian media's reliance on Blackness as an uneven shorthand and how this still works now because of how Blackness exists in Canada.
The article's introduction reads:
"The toughest cops on the Indian beat know what they will find even before they kick in the door. Hair Spray Jerry is there, slouched against a wall, and in the basement apartment's bedroom is his girlfriend, Diane, on a bare mattress, contorted in pain. Her face is bruised, her mouth badly swollen, her blood moist on the floor.
"Diane is often in this state on 'payday Friday,' the day Saskatoon is flooded with welfare cheques and its jagged-edged native neighbourhood on the west side turns violent. 'I called 911 because he was being a shit,' she says as tears stream across her cuts."
The focus is on two police officers — one Indigenous, one white — whose beat covers the neighbourhood Harlem is used to invoke.
"The Indian quarter — a Canadian Harlem on the Prairies — sits on the west side, beyond the riverside trails, a few historical buildings and a modest downtown."
Craig Proulx, a professor of anthropology at St. Thomas University, conducted a critical discourse analysis on Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies for a chapter in the edited collection Aboriginal Peoples in Canadian Cities: Transformation and Continuities.
"Word choice," Proulx writes, "is central to representation in all texts.
"While it might be expected that some of the denizens of a Harlem-like ghetto would be dysfunctional, psychologically damaged, addicted, marginalized, powerless, violent, and criminal; not all of the inhabitants of Saskatoon would be so."
In Proulx's chapter, Blackness is barely mentioned. In fact, Proulx relies on the same shorthand as the article. "Harlem" — and by extension, Harlem as problem — represents crime and poverty and despair and addiction.
"Native groups believe that Canada's justice system treats them and alcohol the way the United States treats blacks and drugs," Proulx writes. "Just as a black man in Harlem goes to jail if caught with marijuana, they say, a native caught drunk in Saskatoon is punished when most non-natives in the same situation have their wrists slapped."
This equivocation of drugs and liquor, Black and Indigenous, in an article where no Black people are present.
Different names, same stories
The article came out less than two months after two police officers were convicted of unlawful confinement for abandoning Darrell Night on the outskirts of Saskatoon. This was the only time that police were charged in relation to Saskatoon's Starlight Tours, which is what they called it when police officers drove Indigenous men outside of the city in the dead of Saskatchewan winters and left them there. Three Indigenous men — Rodney Naistus, Lawrence Wegner and Neil Stonechild — were found frozen to death outside the city over the course of several years.
I wish that we had been as attuned to race and social justice then as we now claim to be. I hope there's a lesson in this that leads Canadian media to examine how it continues to re-entrench systemic oppression against Black and Indigenous people.
The comparison between Black and Indigenous geographies could have been more accurately employed to highlight the police brutality experienced by both Black and Indigenous people: 2001 was also the year of the Cincinnati, Ohio, riots in response to the police shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed Black teenager.
The names change, but the stories don't.
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.