We Are the Roots premieres at Lethbridge Public Library
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.