Gloria Alamrew Gloria Alamrew

PHOTO: Reza Dahya; DESIGN: Andrew McManus/CBC

Building Black kinship

To be Black here is to be both the secret and the secret-keeper

Early Black settlers planted themselves here and grew roots so strong, they pulled others into this place.

By Gloria Alamrew, for CBC First Person

Building Black kinship

To be Black here is to be both the secret and the secret-keeper

Early Black settlers planted themselves here and grew roots so strong, they pulled others into this place.

By Gloria Alamrew, for CBC First Person

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This First Person column is written by Gloria Alamrew who is an Ethiopian Canadian living in Edmonton. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Communities are like a map — the people that bind and hold you tell your story in the journeys they took to get here — to get to you.

So when your “here is a place that doesn’t seem to embrace people that look like you, what does that map — that community — look like? Where did it bring us?

Being Black on the Prairies is a practice in perseverance. It is digging your heels into a soil that was never meant to be hospitable to you or your family.

When I think about the Black settlers arriving in Alberta from Oklahoma, Texas and other states in the Deep South in the early 1900s, I often find myself wondering if they understood the legacy they were creating. When they turned their eyes toward the endless Prairie sky, did they know that more Black faces from other faraway lands would be staring at this same sky more than 100 years later?

Did they see our faces in the clouds? Did they see their own?

Gloria Alamrew’s parents, Yetimwork Belahu and Ambachew Alamrew
Gloria Alamrew’s parents, Yetimwork Belahu and Ambachew Alamrew, are pictured in one of the earliest photos of them after they arrived in Toronto from Ethiopia. (Submitted by Gloria Alamrew)

‘The winters are cold, but you can build a life here’

The Black migrant experience is one of force — of being brought or pushed. Entire generations of Black peoples have been forced to make homes out of lands never meant to cradle their feet.

When the ancestors were first brought to British North America in 1619 Opens new window to toil and build a nation that didn’t want them, they held onto the only thing they had left — each other. Black people intuitively understand that placemaking relies on people.

When I trace the map of my parents’ journey from Ethiopia to Sudan to Toronto and finally to Edmonton, I marvel at the absurdity of it. To flee a sovereign Black nation — one that built its identity on having resisted colonization — and end up in a province that the rest of the country commonly refers to as the “Texas of Canada” seems almost comical to me.

Toronto, where I was born, seemed like a good landing place to my parents. A major metropolis filled with familiar Black faces must have been a comfort. So why leave that for a province that was predominantly white? I’ve asked my parents that question countless times.

Their answer is remarkably simple. My dad’s cousin and her family were here in Alberta and they told my family the truth, “The winters are cold, but you can build a life here.”

My mom and dad remember falling instantly in love with Edmonton’s river valley during a visit one summer. My mom remarked, “the sky and the trees reminded us of home.”

Gloria Alamrew as a child walking with with her father, Ambachew Alamrew
Gloria Alamrew is pictured as a child walking with her father, Ambachew Alamrew, at Heritage Days in Edmonton. (Submitted by Gloria Alamrew)

Planting our flag

The Ethiopian community in Edmonton was small in the 1990s, but we were strong in our connection to each other. We had our own restaurants and pool houses. We participated in Edmonton’s annual Heritage Festival (more affectionately known as Heritage Days), often winning best pavilion.

I remember the parties the most. In my child’s mind, they seemed to be every week, but upon reflection, were more likely once a month or every other month.

They were frequent enough that, even as a kid, they seemed more than just an excuse to have a party. Why would the community go through the trouble (and money) to rent out the Greek Community Hall every month, prepare so much food, purchase alcohol? Just to party? No.

A hall in this populous northern metropolitan city (northern here being a synonym for white Opens new window) filled with hundreds of Black people that look like you, their children laughing and playing together, meant something else. This was our way of planting a flag in this city, in this province. It was our way of declaring that we were here, and we were here to stay.

Gloria Alamrew’s family at West Edmonton Mall
Gloria Alamrew’s father Ambachew Alamrew, right, and mother Yetimwork Belahu, centre in white, is pictured with other family members at West Edmonton Mall during the trip that convinced them to move to Edmonton from Toronto. Gloria’s mother was pregnant with her at the time. (Submitted by Gloria Alamrew)

A similar unlikely quest

I was 19 years old when I first heard about Amber Valley.

I was sitting in my Middle Eastern and African studies class in university when my professor casually mentioned a settlement right here in Alberta — one of the largest Black settlements in Western Canada. In my subsequent research, I was floored to realize that this settlement was only a two-hour drive from Edmonton.

How had I never heard of this place or these people? Sure, they weren’t ancestors by blood, but we shared an ancestral journey — a similar unlikely quest that my parents and so many other Ethiopian immigrants that settled on the Prairies shared in.

I understand that when others refer to this place as the “Texas of Canada,” it’s more to do with our staunchly conservative politics. I agree on that count. But there’s also an accidental invocation in that moniker.

One of the great lies and legacies of white supremacy is two-fold. First, we were made to believe that the southern states are somehow more inherently racist and unforgiving for Black folks than the north. Second, when we look at the southern states today with disdain, the Black families and communities that have made homes, cultures and places have been erased from our collective memory and official records Opens new window. This same erasure happens in Canada with Black people on the Prairies.

It’s a common refrain that there are no Black people out here. To be Black on the Prairies is to be both the secret and the secret-keeper.

Gloria Alamrew’s father with other members of the Ethiopian community
Gloria Alamrew’s father Ambachew Alamrew, left, sits with other members of the Ethiopian community during a party at the Greek Hall in Edmonton. (Submitted by Gloria Alamrew)

Echoes of the past

I hold on to the stories of those first Amber Valley settlers from Oklahoma and Texas. I call them into me and tell them the story of my parents. I give thanks for how they marked the paths to a possibility of home — whether they knew it or not — for a people that would make a place for themselves under the same giant Prairie sky. I offer prayers of strength to the inevitable next generation of Black folks who find themselves on the move for new legacies in new places.

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