WVN – Between 1908 and 1911, over 1,000 African Americans left Oklahoma and surrounding states to settle in Saskatchewan and northern Alberta, seeking freedom and economic opportunity. An important episode in Canadian immigration history, this was the first experience of the new Dominion of Canada with Black immigration en masse. These courageous settlers overcame many obstacles to forge vibrant farming communities, establish their own institutions, and create a rich social life. This was accomplished largely in isolation from white settler society and was similar to what they had known in the United States. However, their arrival and settlement provoked a racist backlash that was promoted by factions of the press and business community, and led to an unofficial policy of exclusion that significantly reduced the numbers of Black people coming to Canada until the loosening of immigration restrictions in the 1960s.
Seeking escape from the Jim Crow practices that were becoming entrenched in the southern states, these Black settlers came as part of a large wave of American immigrants who resettled in Canada during the Laurier years. Upon arrival on the prairies, they chose isolated areas of these provinces where they would be able to build their own communities, hoping they would be free of the racism that marked social, political and economic relations in the United States. Many came as families with their livestock and furniture, ready to establish themselves on their own land. Seven sizeable communities were established, the largest being in the Amber Valley, 160 kilometres north of Edmonton. Despite the Black settlers’ desire to avoid conflict, some white settlers on the prairies organized to stop more of these immigrants from coming. Numerous petitions were sent from small towns and cities across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, lobbying for the immigration of African Americans to be halted. In response, the federal government prepared an Order-in-Council to ban Black immigration, but put it aside while it employed other measures to effectively halt the flow.
It was a small but cohesive group of Black settlers who forged new lives and communities in rural Alberta and Saskatchewan. In general, the settlements endured through the 1930s, then began a steady decline as younger generations migrated to form the foundation of an enduring Black presence in western Canadian cities. While informally discriminated against in workplaces and sometimes denied access to public services and institutions, Black westerners survived the imbedded prejudice that characterized North American society to build strong communities and leave a lasting legacy on Western Canada.