- Black on the Prairies
- April 25, 2021
Celebrating movers and shakers shaping the regionApril 25, 2021
Celebrating movers and shakers shaping the region
There are countless Black folks laying the groundwork for brighter futures on the Prairies. They’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the sciences, sports and arts. They’re taking their rightful place in prairie politics and media. They’re elevating the fight for Black liberation to heights never seen before and showing the full spectrum of Black identity. Ultimately, they’re building a world we can only dream of today, just as the earliest Black settlers in the Prairies did before them.
Below, we give flowers to just a few of the movers and shakers shaping the future of the Prairies.
Fort McMurray, Alberta
In June 2020, 17-year-old Maryam Tsegaye posted a video to YouTube that managed to make quantum tunnelling both understandable and hilarious in just under three minutes. That feat made her the first Canadian to win the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, an international science competition that comes with a $400,000 US prize ($510,000 Cdn) to be put toward a scholarship, a science lab for her school and cash for the teacher who inspired her. The Fort McMurray, Alta., teenager gave the country and the world something to celebrate in a difficult year, and her accomplishment felt like a collective win for Black women and girls in STEM.
Tsegaye hopes to become a researcher and science communicator so she can make science more accessible to youth and the public at large — a goal she’s well on her way to achieving. On top of her scientific achievements, Tsegaye is quite the artist , too.
In the words of Tsegaye’s father, Moges Gebreleoul, “The door is wide open now. She can go anywhere.”
Edmonton, Alberta & Maidstone, Saskatchewan
In 1910, around 1,500 African Americans made the 1,600-kilometre trip north from Oklahoma to the Canadian Prairies in search of a better life. Most ended up in Alberta, but one group of 12 families, led by Julius Caesar Lane, would go on to form Saskatchewan’s first Black settlement. They are now remembered as the Shiloh people, and the Shiloh Baptist Church located north of Maidstone stands as a monument to this community — although it was almost lost until Julius Caesar Lane’s great-grandson came along.
Leander Lane established the Shiloh Baptist Church and Cemetery Restoration Society in 2002, when the church was on the verge of collapse. Along with other Shiloh descendants, Lane raised thousands of dollars to restore the church to its former glory. Prior to the society’s founding, Lane worked with a genealogist to learn the stories of the dozens of Shiloh people buried in the cemetery. The church officially became a provincial heritage site in 2018, making it the only protected site in Saskatchewan that is connected to a community of African descent.
Lane’s efforts to preserve the history of the Shiloh people extends to his writing. His short story Shiloh: Remembering Saskatchewan’s African-American Pioneers appeared in the 2020 spring edition of Saskatchewan’s Prairies North magazine, and his book, The Road to Shiloh, is slated for release in early 2022. As the famous adage goes, you have to know the past to understand the present, and Lane has been instrumental in efforts to place early Black Prairie life firmly in the canon of Canadian history.
ADEBAYO CHRIS KATIITI KALIBBALA
The understanding that no one can be free until Black transgender people are free is a pillar of the Black Lives Matter movement. That freedom is Adebayo Chris Katiiti Kalibbala’s mission as an activist and founder of RARICA Now , an Edmonton-based NGO that supports LGBTQ refugees.
Katiiti Kalibbala, an athlete and active member of Uganda’s LGBTQ community, was competing at the 2016 International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics Championships in Edmonton when it became clear that returning home was no longer an option. Fearful of the rising homophobia and transphobia in his country, Katiiti Kalibbala successfully applied for refugee status in Canada, but soon realized two things: that most queer and trans refugees were not afforded the same support he received; and that racism was alive and well within Canada’s LGBTQ community.
Since settling in Edmonton, Katiiti Kalibbala has been dedicated to helping newcomers like him navigate the labyrinthine refugee process and access the services they need. These efforts earned him the changemaker award at the 2018 Pride Awards in Edmonton.
Katiiti Kalibbala has become a needed voice against racism, transphobia and xenophobia, and an invaluable force in the quest to make the Prairies a safe haven for those who exist at the intersection of multiple oppressed identities.
MUNA DE CIMAN
If you’re an African immigrant in Regina, chances are you know “Aunty Muna.”
Originally from Sierra Leone, Muna De Ciman was raised by a community activist mother in a Creole culture where neighbours are treated like family. De Ciman brought this philosophy with her when she immigrated to Regina, where she quickly became a resource for newcomers in Saskatchewan. She has become a community fixture, tirelessly juggling several roles, including supporting youth who have come into contact with the justice system as part of her 9-to-5 job; serving on the boards of the Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum and the Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan; and acting as the union representative for workers of colour with the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour. De Ciman is also a frequent sight at multicultural events and has co-organized numerous rallies, such as last summer’s BLM-African Communities Unite rally and Regina’s annual Women’s March.
On top of her formal engagements, much of De Ciman’s community work happens in the shadows. She has been known to help newcomers find work, put people up in her home, find money to put kids through school, give people rides when they need them and even enlist her own children — all accomplished in their own right — to mentor youth. De Ciman has won numerous awards for her community work, although she’ll never tell you that herself. One thing is for sure: Aunty Muna continues to shape a future where immigrants can claim the Prairies as their home.
Just hours after hoisting the European Cup last August, Bayern Munich left-back Alphonso Davies took to Twitter to acknowledge the improbability of what he had just achieved: “Who would have guessed it a kid from Canada, Edmonton Alberta. Most people don’t even know where that [is]. Where it snows I’m talking -40 weather, he’s now a champion league winner.”
Described as “the face of Canadian soccer ,” Davies has emerged as one of the country’s most elite athletes. By winning the Champions League in 2020, he became the first Canadian men’s player to do so. Just 19 years earlier, Davies was born in a Ghanaian refugee camp after his family fled the civil war in Liberia. They moved to Canada when he was five, eventually settling in Edmonton.
At just 20 years old, Davies is the youngest person to play on the Canadian men’s national team and the youngest to score for the national team. Davies ushered in a new generation of soccer players when he became the first player born in the 2000s to play in a Major League Soccer game. In 2020, he was voted the Canadian male athlete of the year by The Canadian Press and the Toronto Star, as well as the Bundesliga rookie of the year.
By Davies’s own account , his trajectory is proof that no mountain is too high for a kid from Edmonton.
AUDREY GORDON, UZOMA ASAGWARA, JAMIE MOSES
For Black representation in Prairie politics, 2019 was a big year. Nearly 150 years after it was founded, the Manitoba Legislature finally elected its first Black MLAs — three, to be exact.
Audrey Gordon, a public servant for 25 years and director of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s home care program, continued to etch her name into the history books after her groundbreaking election. In January 2021, the Progressive Conservative MLA for Southdale was tapped to lead the newly created Department of Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery, making her Manitoba’s very first Black cabinet minister.
Uzoma Asagwara also made history in more ways than one when they became the first non-binary and the first Black queer person to win a seat in the legislative assembly. A year later, the NDP MLA for Union Station became the first Black person in Manitoba history to introduce legislation and pass a law. Prior to entering politics, Asagwara was a psychiatric nurse and addiction specialist, founder of the Queer People of Colour collective and a former member of the Canadian women’s national basketball team.
Jamie Moses — also an accomplished athlete with three provincial basketball titles to his name, among other accolades — claimed his seat, representing St. Vital, after losing in the same riding in 2016. Aside from his passion for sports and creating recreational opportunities for youth, the NDP MLA has been a community leader for health-care groups, the Glenwood Community Centre and the Glenwood Parent Advisory Council.
Legislatures across the Prairies, much like political bodies in other parts of Canada and the world, have a long way to go before they become representative of the people they serve. The election of Gordon, Asagwara and Moses was a major step in the right direction. Although they broke barriers, the MLAs’ accomplishments are now part of a long lineage of Black folks asserting their right to be part of the Prairies’ social fabric.
YOUNG ACTIVISTS ACROSS THE PRAIRIES
Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan
Protests against anti-Black racism swept the Prairies in 2020 in unexpected places and numbers. They marked the birth of a new generation of anti-racism activists and illustrated the power of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan’s Gen Z organizers. In Winnipeg’s largest protest that summer, up to 20,000 people showed up to a rally organized by Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg — a group whose youngest member, Imani Pinder, was 17 at the time. In Lacombe, Alta., a city of about 15,000 people just north of Red Deer, teenagers from the Ubuntu Youth Council took the mic to denounce anti-Black racism. In Saskatoon, university student Braydon Page organized one of the largest protests the city has ever seen. Much of this organizing continues to take place online, where social media-savvy groups such as Black in Sask and BLM YXE use their platforms to host community conversations, politicize their followers and celebrate Black people making a difference in the Prairies. Together, young Black activists across the Prairies are taking up space and speaking up like never before.
When Larissa Crawford had her daughter Zyra as a student at York University, she embarked on a journey to reconcile her Métis and Jamaican heritage. Today, Crawford’s work addresses both anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, while celebrating the unshakeable resilience of both ancestries.
Crawford, who grew up in rural and southern Alberta and now lives in Calgary, brings an Indigenous and anti-racist perspective to every room she walks into — whether it’s to lobby for Indigenous world views at the UN Sustainable Development Goals G7 Summit as a youth delegate in 2018, act as an adviser to the Ontario Anti-Racism Directorate or her work as a restorative circle keeper and activist.
After years of working in non-profit and government agencies, Crawford decided to do things her own way in 2020 when she created Future Ancestors , a Black, Indigenous and youth-led consulting firm “that advances climate justice and equity with lenses of anti-racism and ancestral accountability.”
In just a few short years, Crawford has garnered attention and awards for her work, including several fellowships, and was named to Corporate Knights’ Top 30 Under 30 in Sustainability in 2019.
Crawford also finds a way to bridge her Blackness and Indigeneity in her other life as an award-winning ribbon skirt artist .
Illustrations by Enas Satir, a Toronto-based Sudanese artist whose work revolves around politics, issues of race, Blackness, and African identity. Her work is inspired by the beauty and complexity of her background and country, Sudan.
“Being a newcomer, most of my interactions are with creatives and projects abroad, which makes me feel like my body is in Canada while my mind is attuned to a different part of the world. Working on a Canadian project like this makes me feel like I belong here a little more.”Enas Satir
Omayra Issa & Ify Chiwetelu
Associate Producer, Researcher, Audio Lead
Designed by Andrew McManus
Developed by Dwight Friesen
With support from CBC Calgary, CBC Edmonton, CBC Saskatoon, CBC Saskatchewan and CBC Manitoba