The Doc Project

My family is fifth-generation Canadian and still get asked where they're from

The Lipscombes hail from Amber Valley, Alberta, a community formed by black settlers at the turn of the 20th century.

The Lipscombes settled in Alberta's Amber Valley at the turn of the 20th century

The Lipscombe family (Julia Lipscombe)

This documentary first aired in February 2018.

By Julia Lipscombe

My name is Julia Lipscombe. I'm a journalist in Edmonton, Alberta. My husband, Jesse, and I have three sons. Chile and Tripp, 10 and 8 years old, are my stepsons. Indiana, 16 months, is my biological son.

Chile, Tripp and Indiana. To me, those sound like pioneer names. Names that belong in an old Western movie — set on the wild frontier. We didn't do it on purpose. But the more I think about it, the more appropriate those names actually are. 

Jesse Lipscombe (far left), Monica Miles Lipscombe, Tripp Lipscombe, Richard Lipscombe, Indiana Lipscombe, Chile Lipscombe (Julia Lipscombe)

The boys were all born at the Royal Alexandra hospital near downtown Edmonton. Their dad, Jesse, was born in West Edmonton. Their grandfather, Richard, was born in Athabasca, 145 kilometres north of Edmonton. Their grandfather's parents were born in Alberta, too. And my sons' great-great grandparents came here over 100 years ago to homestead and farm. They were some of the first black settlers in the Prairies. True pioneers of Canada's West.

My sons are fifth generation black Albertans.

Oswald and Alberta Lipscombe's children, 1954 (Debbie Lipscombe)

I'm white, and from Ontario. Before I met Jesse, I had no idea that there were black settlers in Alberta. And it's not just an out-of-towner thing. Where we live, in Westmount (a neighbourhood in Central Edmonton), very few people know that history. Even if they've lived here their whole lives. 

Starting in 1908, black American settlers formed five communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The biggest, and northernmost, was Amber Valley, located 160 kilometres north of Edmonton, just east of Athabasca.

Amber Valley baseball team (Oswald Lipscombe top right) (Debbie Lipscombe)

Though northern Alberta was cold and harsh, conditions there for black Americans were arguably preferable to those in the American South.

When Oklahoma officially became a state in 1907, an influx of white homesteaders made the lives of the area's black inhabitants considerably worse. Oppressed by Jim Crow laws and terrorized by those who would soon be the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan, just under 1,000 black farmers sought freedom in the Canadian West, including Jesse's family.

Original Amber Valley cabin (Julia Lipscombe)

At its peak, Amber Valley had almost 300 residents. It had a school and a post office. But throughout the 1950s many of Amber Valley's residents moved away, seeking work in Edmonton. Still, Amber Valley stands as a testament to this proud and woefully little known part of Canadian history. 

Even my mother-in-law, Monica Miles Lipscombe, hadn't heard of Amber Valley until she met her future husband, Richard Lipscombe, in the 1970s. Monica's family were Edmonton royalty — her dad was Rollie Miles, who won three Grey Cups with the Edmonton Eskimos. 

CBC Archives: 1954 Grey Cup featuring Rollie Miles

5 years ago
Duration 3:28
A deep cut from the CBC Archives: Rollie Miles playing for the Edmonton Eskimos at the 1954 Grey Cup. The Edmonton Eskimos beat the Montreal Alouettes 26 to 25.

Growing up, my husband didn't learn any of this in school. Black History Month was only officially recognized by the province last year, and the stories of Canada's black Prairie pioneers haven't always been told and taught.

I want that to be different for my children. So I set out to show them their history — as best as I could — through the words of their own family members.   

Listen to the documentary "Where are you from, from?" by clicking the Listen link at the top of the page, or download and subscribe to our podcast.


About the producer

Julia Lipscombe
Born in Deep River, Ontario, Julia Lipscombe is an Edmonton-based freelance journalist who mostly works as an associate producer at CBC Radio. She is a former staffer at FLARE magazine, NOW magazine, and the Edmonton Journal, where she still writes a parenting column. Alongside her husband, Jesse Lipscombe, she co-founded and runs the anti-discrimination campaign #MakeItAwkward, which encourages people to speak up and speak out against racism, homophobia and hate of all kinds. Julia is mom and stepmom to three beautiful boys: Chile, Tripp and Indiana. In her ever-diminishing spare time, Julia likes to swim, bike, run, drink wine, and listen to lots of albums as a member of the Polaris Music Prize jury.

This documentary was edited by Acey Rowe.