Between 1905 and 1912 some 1,500 African Americans migrated to the Plains region of Canada. They came from Oklahoma, although a few families were from Kansas and Texas. They settled in small, rural communities in the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.
The first black farmers began arriving in 1905. They appear to have been lured north by reports of good agricultural land being available. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the federal government of Canada launched an extensive campaign in the U.S. Midwest and Great Plains to attract experienced farmers. Advertisements flooded regional newspapers, pamphlets were widely distributed, and Canadian exhibits were regular features at state and local agricultural fairs. The Canadian advertising did not mention race as a factor in determining who would be allowed to settle in the northern dominion.
The trickle of black farmers into western Canada increased substantially when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. The Oklahoma Democratic Party campaigned for delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and later the first state legislature, on a "Jim Crow" segregation platform. Their racist appeals were effective and, once elected, the Democrats moved quickly to implement a range of racial segregation measures. Black Oklahomans reacted to these developments by organizing, petitioning, boycotting, protesting, and launching court challenges. Their tactics were no more successful in the new state than they had been elsewhere in the South. This led some of them to leave Oklahoma, and one of their destinations was the much-promoted lands available in western Canada.
The movement north was renewed in 1910 when Oklahoma Democrats moved to disenfranchise African Americans. Black Americans had traditionally voted for Lincoln's party, the Republicans. Their votes, when combined with a sizable white Republican minority in Oklahoma, always presented a challenge to the Democrats' political hold on the state. Three years after they segregated African Americans in public services, the Democrats eliminated the black voter from the state's political scene.
White western Canadians shared many of their American neighbors' racial attitudes, though they rarely expressed them as violently. They reacted overwhelmingly against the black migration and successfully petitioned their federal government to stop African Americans from coming north. At first the Canadian federal authorities tried to discourage blacks by not sending information to prospective African American settlers and by delaying their entry at the border. These methods were only partially effective, and eventually the Immigration Branch of the Canadian Department of the Interior sent two agents to Oklahoma to try to stop black settlers from leaving for Canada. One of these agents was particularly effective, probably because he was himself black, and by late 1911 the African American migration from Oklahoma was ending. Still concerned about possible migration, the Canadian federal cabinet approved an order barring blacks from entering Canada. When the work of the agents in Oklahoma proved to be successful, the order was quietly repealed.
African Americans who managed to get through Canada's immigration barriers appear to have avoided heavily settled areas on the Canadian Plains, possibly in an effort to minimize contact with whites. The areas where they chose to settle were remote, even by the standards of the settlement era. Black farmers headed to the alternating bush and meadowlands that form the northern boundary of the Canadian Great Plains. The principal settlement in Saskatchewan was along the North Saskatchewan River, north of the town of Maidstone. In Alberta, African Americans fanned out from Edmonton, forming an arc of settlements at Breton, Lobstick Lake, Wildwood, and Amber Valley.
African American families in western Canada went to work immediately, transforming the bush and meadowlands into productive farms. It was hard work, and they had to learn new ways of farming. Black pioneers had farmed cotton and tobacco in Oklahoma but now had to make a transition to raising grain and livestock.
Their hard work eventually paid dividends, and within a decade of initial settlement most black farmers were well established. Within those years they also began to create the institutions that gave substance to their Canadian communities. One particularly important social institution was the school, because a large number of children had come north and were soon joined by brothers and sisters born in Canada. African Americans soon learned that they were not completely isolated from white society, and that racially mixed schools were as delicate an issue for whites living north of the forty-ninth parallel as for those south of it. Black children were barred from one Alberta school, while another African American community in Alberta organized its own separate school. In Saskatchewan black children were segregated in their own school for several years.
As with so many rural areas across the Great Plains, African American communities began losing their young people to the economic lure of the cities. Yet racial prejudice was also common in the cities of the Canadian Plains during the early twentieth century, and the new African Canadians found that they were limited to jobs in construction, cartage and hauling, and meatpacking. African Canadians also found that railroading was one of the few industries open to them, and blacks from western Canada (like their counterparts in the United States) found steady employment as porters, although the more lucrative and prestigious position of conductor was closed to them for decades. These African Canadian railroad families gradually relocated across the country, and today the descendants of western Canada's black pioneers are found in railroad centers such as Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal.
While they faced persistent racial prejudice, black pioneers and their offspring quickly identified with their new country. Perhaps there was no better indicator of that allegiance than the readiness with which young African Canadians volunteered for the Canadian armed forces during World Wars I and II. Black Canadians served their country with distinction during both conflicts.
African Americans who migrated to Saskatchewan and Alberta were seeking a refuge from the racism they had experienced in the United States. They headed north to a region that must have seemed both different and tragically familiar. They learned new ways of farming and how to deal with a different government. Unfortunately, they also encountered another variety of the racism they had fled. Their African Canadian descendants have taken up the struggle for equality and respect, and are calling upon a historical legacy to help them in that struggle.
R. Bruce Shepard University of Saskatchewan
Painter, Nell Irvin. Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Shepard, R. Bruce. Deemed Unsuitable. Toronto: Umbrella Press, 1997.
Winks, Robin. The Blacks in Canada: A History. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1971.