Alberta’s black pioneers have been recognized with a Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque at Amber Valley Cultural Centre in Amber Valley.
Between 1908 and 1911, more than 1,000 black Americans left Oklahoma and surrounding states to settle in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, seeking freedom from racial segregation and economic opportunity. They chose isolated areas in Saskatchewan and Alberta to build their own communities. In Alberta, they established the largest community in Amber Valley (north of Edmonton), with smaller ones located in Breton (Keystone), Campsie, Lobstick Lake, and Junkins (Wildwood).
But despite the settlers’ desire to avoid conflict, their arrival provoked a racist backlash that was promoted by factions of the press and business community. 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. Those measures significantly reduced the numbers of black people coming to Canada until the loosening of immigration restrictions in the 1960s.
Despite the hostility they faced, these small groups of resilient black settlers became successful farmers and formed independent communities. In general, the settlements endured through the 1930s, then began a steady decline as younger generations migrated to western Canadian cities. While discriminated against in workplaces and sometimes denied access to public services and institutions, black westerners survived this prejudice to build strong communities and leave a lasting legacy on Western Canada.
A documentary released earlier this year detailed the history of these pioneers. The documentary, called “Secret Alberta – The Former Life of Amber Valley,” can be found on YouTube.