We Are the Roots pre­mieres at Leth­bridge Pub­lic Li­brary

Prairie Post (West Edition) - - Alberta - BY HEATHER CAMERON

A poignant film called We are the Roots: Black Set­tlers and Their Ex­pe­ri­ences of Dis­crim­i­na­tion on the Cana­dian Prairies pre­miered at the Leth­bridge Pub­lic Li­brary.

The pre­mier was on Oct. 20 with an­other show­ing on Oct. 21.

“The film tells the story of a wave of African Amer­i­can im­mi­grants who moved to Al­berta and Saskatchewan be­tween 1905-1912 in search of a bet­ter life,” said Dr. Jenna Bai­ley, Ad­junct As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor in the His­tory De­part­ment and Se­nior Re­search Fel­low at the Cen­tre for Oral His­tory and Tra­di­tion at the Univer­sity of Leth­bridge. “Tak­ing ad­van­tage of Canada’s of­fer of 160 acres of land for a $10 fee, 1,000 to 1,500 in­di­vid­u­als moved to the Prairies and helped de­velop sev­eral set­tle­ments through­out the prov­inces.”

We Are the Roots was made by Dr. Bai­ley and David Este, who in­ter­viewed sec­ond and third gen­er­a­tion in­di­vid­u­als from the orig­i­nal set­tler fam­i­lies who left the United States be­cause of dis­crim­i­na­tion. The project team was man­aged by Deb­o­rah Dob­bins.

“Through the sto­ries of 19 de­scen­dants of the orig­i­nal set­tlers, the film tells the story of the mi­gra­tion of th­ese fam­i­lies from the United States, the set­tle­ment sto­ries, how they built home­steads through Al­berta and Saskatchewan, and what life was like grow­ing up and work­ing in Ed­mon­ton,” Bai­ley said. “The film fo­cuses on ex­pe­ri­ences of dis­crim­i­na­tion in both the ru­ral set­tle­ments and the city, demon­strat­ing that, with re­gard to dis­crim­i­na­tion, it was more dif­fi­cult liv­ing in the city as there were very few black fam­i­lies and it was an iso­lat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. In con­trast, fam­i­lies liv­ing in the ru­ral set­tle­ments were able to mu­tu­ally sup­port each other.

The project team says that this film cap­tures the first hand ac­counts of black women’s ex­pe­ri­ences of liv­ing in the Cana­dian Prairies in the first half of the 20th cen­tury and is a record of the dis­crim­i­na­tion ex­pe­ri­enced by both black men and women in the school sys­tem and the labour mar­ket in the city of Ed­mon­ton.

Fi­nally, this film high­lights the im­por­tant his­tory of the Shiloh Bap­tist Church.

“This film is a mov­ing, emo­tion­ally charged doc­u­men­tary that shares an es­sen­tial part of Al­ber­tan and Cana­dian his­tory so it ap­peals to a wide au­di­ence,” Dr. Bai­ley ex­plained. “Through first hand ac­counts of the de­scen­dants of the orig­i­nal set­tlers, au­di­ences learn about the tremen­dous ef­forts th­ese in­di­vid­u­als went to to help build Al­berta into the prov­ince it is to­day, as well as the strug­gle with racism, prej­u­dice and marginal­iza­tion that mem­bers of the black com­mu­nity in Western Canada have faced and con­tinue to face. View­ing the film is im­por­tant for in­di­vid­u­als who wants to learn more about Cana­dian his­tory through the eyes of a small but mighty group of fam­i­lies who were here when the prairie prov­inces came part of Canada.”

Dis­crim­i­na­tion on the prairies, Dr. Bai­ley goes back af­ter a long pe­riod of time.

Af­ter Ok­la­homa be­came a state in 1907, laws that en­forced seg­re­ga­tion came into ef­fect and life be­came much more dif­fi­cult for black peo­ple. They lost the right to vote and seg­re­ga­tion ap­plied to ev­ery­thing, of­ten cre­at­ing ten­sions that led to vi­o­lence.

At the same time, the project team says, Canada was in­tent on set­tling the West.

The Cana­dian govern­ment dis­trib­uted thou­sands of ad­ver­tise­ments in the United States, en­cour­ag­ing Amer­i­cans to move to the ‘Last Best West’ where $10 bought 160 acres of land. Many African-Amer­i­cans from Ok­la­homa, Mis­sis­sippi, Iowa, Illi­nois, Ten­nessee, Ken­tucky, Mis­souri and Texas made the trek north.

“When they be­gan ar­riv­ing in Canada in large num­bers, protests be­gan and only grew in in­ten­sity,” Dr. Bai­ley said. “Canada re­sponded first by mak­ing things dif­fi­cult for African Amer­i­cans at the border. By 1911, the protests were so sig­nif­i­cant that the Cana­dian govern­ment sent agents to African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties in the U.S. to tell them the land was not hab­it­able and the cli­mate was too cold. The mi­gra­tion wave ended.”

Ed­mon­ton, the project team says, was not wel­com­ing to those al­ready in Canada who sought op­por­tu­ni­ties at a bet­ter life.

In 1924, an Ed­mon­ton city coun­cil­lor pro­posed black peo­ple be banned from swim­ming pools. The team added that one fam­ily in Saskatchewan, where there were more than 100 Ku Klux Klan chap­ters be­tween 1920 and 1930, even had a visit from the RCMP to warn them the KKK had them on their radar.

“De­spite the dis­crim­i­na­tion they faced, peo­ple worked hard to help de­velop the land and build busi­nesses and churches in their com­mu­ni­ties,” Dr. Bai­ley said. “Con­di­tions im­proved over the course of the 20th cen­tury, but the in­ter­views con­ducted for this project demon­strated that in­di­vid­u­als from the black com­mu­nity in Al­berta and Saskatchewan con­tinue to ex­pe­ri­ence dis­crim­i­na­tion and racism on a daily ba­sis. Th­ese sto­ries form the ba­sis for this film.”

The project teams says that the film­mak­ers were ini­tially met with re­luc­tance by the chil­dren of the orig­i­nal set­tlers be­cause those in­ter­viewed pre­ferred to speak about the pos­i­tive as­pects of their lives in Al­berta and Saskatchewan.

“This hes­i­tancy de­creased as the film­mak­ers in­ter­viewed in­di­vid­u­als from later gen­er­a­tions who were more com­fort­able dis­cussing their ex­pe­ri­ences with dis­crim­i­na­tion as well as sto­ries shared with them from older gen­er­a­tions,” Dr. Bai­ley said.

“It is very dif­fi­cult to com­pare the past to the present be­cause the bla­tant covert and at times overt dis­crim­i­na­tory ac­tions fre­quently done by non-racial­ized per­sons, or­ga­ni­za­tions and in­sti­tu­tions were rarely recorded or ac­knowl­edged as be­ing such. Fam­ily mem­bers wanted to live peace­fully with their neigh­bours. Most in­ci­dents were ra­tio­nal­ized by them to not have oc­curred and (/) or in­ten­tion­ally ig­nored in the ef­fort to not cause any fu­ture reper­cus­sions or back­lash.”

The project team says that through­out the grow­ing years of Western Canada’s de­vel­op­ment and pros­per­ity, those sim­i­lar types of in­ci­dents con­tin­ued to oc­cur, but as each gen­er­a­tion of de­scen­dants be­came more ed­u­cated, ex­pe­ri­enced, eco­nom­i­cally self-suf­fi­cient and con­fi­dent in their rights as Cana­dian cit­i­zens, many be­gan to speak out, mostly in as pos­i­tive a way as pos­si­ble, to let the per­pe­tra­tors know that what they were do­ing was wrong.

The project team em­pha­sizes that de­scen­dants of the set­tlers who came pre-1940 knew the best way to treat dis­crim­i­na­tion was and still is to ad­dress the is­sue in a pos­i­tive man­ner.

“Dis­crim­i­na­tion is still very much alive here in Al­berta,” Dr. Bai­ley said. “The first step is ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about racism and se­condly how it im­pacts in­di­vid­u­als, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. One way to do this can be to view the film We Are The Roots to start the con­ver­sa­tion about the ad­verse ef­fects of the racism that ex­isted while Canada was de­vel­op­ing as a na­tion state. A strong mes­sage that needs to be con­veyed is that racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion need to be ad­dressed by all Cana­di­ans.”

The project team says that var­i­ous sec­tors, pri­vate, pub­lic and non-profit are now more fre­quent ad­dress­ing is­sues of eq­uity and hu­man rights. Mul­ti­me­dia venues are bring­ing to light in­jus­tices through­out the world in­clud­ing atroc­i­ties right here in our neigh­bor­hoods caus­ing so­cial jus­tice upris­ing call­ing for the elim­i­na­tion of all types of dis­crim­i­na­tory acts per­pe­trated to any hu­man be­ing re­gard­less of eth­nic­ity, cul­ture, gen­der, sta­tus or abil­ity.

“As project man­ager, I feel we have com­pleted a wor­thy project that has pro­duced in­valu­able his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary in­for­ma­tion both in print and in a vis­ual form,” said Deb­o­rah Dob­bins, project man­ager over the We

Are the Roots film.

“It is im­per­a­tive that this his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion is made known to the pub­lic, and ac­knowl­edged as im­per­a­tive ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­rial that needs to be in­cluded in the pri­mary, sec­ondary and post sec­ondary cur­ricu­lum of stud­ies through­out Canada.”

From left to right: Project Man­ager Deb­o­rah Dob­bins, Dr. Jenna Bai­ley, Dr. David Este hold­ing two of the four awards they have been given by the Oral His­tory As­so­ci­a­tion for their work: the Eliz­a­beth B. Ma­son Project Award and the Oral His­tory in Non­print For­mat Award.

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