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Blacks: Early Settlements

Following the American Civil War (1861–65), thousands of African Americans exercised their newly won freedom by moving west. One of their destinations was the Indian Territory which had been set aside by the United States as a place to settle First Nations displaced by advancing White settlement. The area was particularly attractive to African Americans because they had the opportunity to obtain land, and because their civil and political rights would be protected thanks to the federal administration. However, White Americans were also attracted to the Indian Territory, and when it became the state of Oklahoma in 1908 they dominated the new state government. The majority of Oklahoma’s White population, having come from the older southern states, quickly began implementing the racial segregation policies which characterized their region until the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1910 the White majority took away the Blacks’ right to vote in Oklahoma in a statewide referendum.

Canada began advertising for settlers in Europe and the United States shortly after it obtained the Canadian plains region as part of its purchase of the Hudson’s Bay Company lands. Some of these advertisements found their way into African-American newspapers in the Indian Territory and Oklahoma. Canada’s appeals found many eager listeners among Oklahoma’s Black population who had moved west to escape discrimination and found themselves engulfed in it once again. The available land in what became Saskatchewan attracted some Black settlers even before Oklahoma began its racist policies. As early as 1905, a few Black homesteaders settled near what became Maidstone, Saskatchewan. A short time later the Lafayette brothers from Iowa settled near Rosetown. The appearance of these early settlers did not attract much attention; this changed dramatically when trainloads of Black men, women and children began arriving on Canada’s border, having been driven north by Oklahoma’s implementation of segregation and disenfranchisement.

White Canadians reacted overwhelmingly against the Black migration. Farmers’ organizations and womens’ groups joined Boards of Trade across the region in demanding that the federal government halt the movement. The issue was debated several times in Parliament, and the Department of the Interior began an investigation. Eventually the federal government sent an agent, a Black doctor from Chicago, to Oklahoma to work against the movement; in effect countering its own advertising. His work was successful, and by 1911 the Black migration from Oklahoma was ending. Initially unaware of their Black agent’s success, the Canadian federal Cabinet of Wilfrid Laurier approved an Order-in-Council barring anyone of African descent from entering Canada. When the agent’s accomplishments became clear, the order was quietly withdrawn.

The majority of the Black settlers who made it over Canada’s immigration barriers headed to Edmonton and established a number of settlements in an area around the Alberta capital. The largest settlement in Saskatchewan was north of Maidstone, along the North Saskatchewan River, in what became known as the Eldon district. By 1912 the Shiloh Baptist Church, which still stands, had been erected, giving form and substance to the community. The Eldon settlers also tried to create a school district so that their children could obtain an Education in their new country. They encountered an inordinate number of delays and obstructions until it was revealed that the White settlers of the area refused to send their children to school with Blacks. While eventually resolved, the dispute meant that a racially segregated school existed in Saskatchewan for several years.

As with so many rural areas across the Canadian plains, the Eldon district began losing its young people to the economic lure of the region’s cities during and after World War II. They encountered racial prejudice there, and many were forced to take menial jobs. Young Black men were particularly discriminated against. One of the few occupations open to them was as porters and baggage handlers on the railroads; the more lucrative and prestigious position of conductor was closed to them for many years. A significant result of this discrimination was that Blacks from the Canadian plains region were scattered to railroad centres across the country. Today, African-Canadian families from Vancouver to Montreal have roots in the Prairies due to the northward migration of African Americans nearly a century ago.

Bruce Shepard

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Further Reading

Shepard, R.B. 1997. Deemed Unsuitable. Toronto: Umbrella Press; Winks, R.W. 1971. The Blacks in Canada: A History. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.
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