In the early twentieth century, hundreds of African Americans crossed the border in search of land and opportunity in the Prairie West. Many of these immigrants ultimately settled in Alberta, establishing communities such as Wildwood, Keystone (now Breton), Campsie and Amber Valley. The story of these settlers is one of perseverance on both sides of the border – driven out of the United States by persecution and violence, African American migrants had to overcome racist hostility and other barriers on the road to successful settlement in Alberta.
In the minds of many African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Canada was a land of freedom and opportunity. As detailed by historian Sarah-Jane Mathieu, this positive view was rooted in several factors, including Canada’s status as a refuge for runaway slaves in the mid-nineteenth century, and a general perception that African Americans would enjoy fairer treatment under Canadian than American law. This idealization of Canada was heightened by the harsh reality of life for many African Americans, as promises of land and equality in the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) gave way to segregation, violence and legally-sanctioned discrimination. By the late nineteenth century, many African Americans viewed migration to Canada with increasing favour.
This view of Canada as a haven for African American settlers would prove overly optimistic. A sharp increase in African American immigration to western Canada in 1909-1910 sparked a severe backlash across the region, including several cities in Alberta. The Edmonton Board of Trade prepared a petition calling on the federal government to act against the “serious menace” of ‘negro’ immigration, warning that it would result in “bitter race hatred” if left unchecked. The petition was endorsed by the Boards of Trade for Fort Saskatchewan, Strathcona and Calgary, and was signed by over three thousand citizens of Edmonton, at a time when the city’s population was only twenty-four thousand. Newspapers printed sensationalist stories about the impending “invasion of Negroes,” and while some voices were raised in support of the rights of African American settlers, the federal government came under intense public pressure to take action.
This pressure placed the Government of Canada in a very awkward position. The government was reluctant to openly admit that its immigration policy was dictated by considerations of race (even though that precedent had already been set with the passage of the Chinese Head Tax in 1885). Specifically barring African Americans from entry into Canada at a time when the government was working hard to attract white American homesteaders would create a glaring inconsistency in Canada’s immigration policy. Further, the Canadian government did not want to risk a public dispute with the American government over the issue by explicitly banning the free movement of some of its people across the border.
Instead of enacting an outright ban, the Canadian government took other measures to try and restrict African American immigration. For example, medical examiners stationed at border crossings were instructed to scrutinize African American immigrants for any medical condition that would justify their exclusion, quietly offering a financial bonus to doctors for each African American immigrant rejected at the border. Inspectors were also told to make certain that African American immigrants had adequate cash on hand to successfully homestead – at least two hundred dollars – even though such agents had the power to waive such a requirement for white immigrants. Frustratingly for the federal government, these measures were met with limited success – African American immigrants proved to be healthy, prosperous and well prepared for the challenge that met them at the border. The influx of African American immigrants thus continued through 1910 and 1911.
Facing continued pressure to act, Minister of the Interior Frank Oliver drafted an Order in Council in 1911 that banned “any immigrants belonging to the Negro race” from entering Canada for one year. The Order in Council was approved by Prime Minister Laurier, but the government continued to stall, fearing that enacting an open ban would harm Canadian-American relations at a time when the two governments were negotiating a major trade agreement. Instead, the Canadian government made one final effort to cut off African American immigration at the source by deploying agents to warn potential immigrants about Canada’s harsh and unforgiving climate. The hypocrisy of this strategy was remarkable – at a time when the Canadian government was working hard to assure white Americans that rumours of Canada’s cold climate were exaggerated, other agents were telling potential African American immigrants that Canada was a barren, arctic wasteland. These measures, coupled with the hostile reception already given to African American immigrants, worked to discourage potential migrants and African American immigration to Canada declined after 1911.
To some degree, this legacy of hostility dictated the settlement patterns of those African Americans, about one thousand, who did make it across the border to settle in Alberta in this period. Rather than accepting the best available land as individual homesteaders, they tended to settle in somewhat isolated rural areas where land was plentiful, if somewhat marginal, and they could establish self-sufficient, independent communities. The isolation that allowed such cohesive communities to form also worked against their survival, however, as the children of the first wave of immigrants tended to move on to Alberta’s urban centres in search of better economic opportunity. Of the early settlements, Amber Valley proved to be the most durable, surviving through the Great Depression and World War Two as an important centre of African American settlement in the province.
The story of early twentieth-century African American immigration is an important chapter in the broader history of agricultural settlement in the Canadian west. African Americans sought land and security in Canada at a time when the federal government was eager to attract homesteaders with farming experience. There was little question that the African Americans fleeing Oklahoma possessed the qualifications that the Canadian government prized in immigrants – even the Edmonton Board of Trade’s petition did not deny that “these people may be good farmers or good citizens.” However, the backlash against them, at a time when they comprised up a miniscule proportion of the population, illustrates the extent to which considerations of race entered into immigration policy and what constituted, in the public mind, a desirable settler for Canada. Approximately one thousand African Americans managed to find a home in Alberta between 1909 and 1911, but the public reaction and sustained effort to keep them from entering Canada speaks volumes about the challenges they had to overcome on the road to starting a new life in Alberta.
Written by: Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer.
Mathieu, Sarah-Jane. North of the Colour Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Palmer, Howard, and Tamara Palmer, eds. Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985.
Winks, Robin W. The Blacks in Canada: A History. 2nd ed. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997.