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Black Pioneers Head to the Prairies

For the Week of Monday January 28, 2013

On February 1, 1907, the Muskogee Cimeter, an American newspaper in Oklahoma, published an advertisement proclaiming the Canadian prairies to be the “Last Best West.” Such advertisements were meant to attract American immigrants to western Canada. They held particular appeal to some of the Black communities in Oklahoma, over a thousand kilometres south of the Canadian border.

A government ad in the Muskogee Cimeter encouraging the settlement of the Canadian west, February 1, 1907
© Oklahoma Historical Society / Oklahoma City

When Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907, the state government began passing racist segregation laws known collectively as “Jim Crow laws.” Although many Black Americans chose to stay and fight for their rights, others sought refuge elsewhere and were drawn to northern American cities and to Canada.

Between 1907 and 1912, more than 1,000 Black Americans travelled by rail and moved their families to Canada, creating their own settlements in Amber Valley (Pine Creek), Breton (Keystone), Campsie, Lobstick Lake, and Junkin (Wildwood) in Alberta, as well as Maidstone and Wilkie in Saskatchewan. These pioneers had left the racism of the South only to encounter it again in the Canadian West. Local newspapers condemned Black immigration and local governments circulated petitions demanding that the federal government bring this to an end. In August 1911, the federal government passed a law forbidding Black American immigration to Canada. The law was repealed in October of the same year, but the government limited the number of Black immigrants entering Canada until the 1960s. In spite of a hostile beginning, these settlers founded their own institutions, created a rich social life, and established vibrant farming communities, which endured for the first half of the 20th century. 

Obadiah Place, site of well known Black Pioneer Willis Reese Bowen and his son Obadiah, Amber Valley, Alberta
© Parks Canada / Alexandra Mosquin / 2003

Black Pioneers Immigration to Alberta and Saskatchewan was designated as a national historic event in 2007 because it marked Canada’s first post-Confederation experience with large-scale Black immigration. This event also commemorates the difficulties that Black settlers encountered upon arriving on the Canadian prairies and speaks the history of immigration policy in Canada before the Great War.

February is Black History Month! For more stories on the history of the Black communities in Canada, please read Africville's Life After Death, Ahead of her time: Marie Marguerite Rose, Harry Jerome receives the Order of Canada, Portia May White: the Legendary Contralto , Reverend Richard Preston Fights Slavery!, and Thornton and Lucie Blackburn Test the Fugitive Offenders Act in the This Week in History archives. See also the Government of Canada Black History Month  page.
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