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Amber Valley: Settlement in northern Alberta sees surge in visitors interested in Black history

Click to play video 'Remembering Alberta’s Black history in Amber Valley' Remembering Alberta’s Black history in Amber Valley
WATCH: It was a refuge where hundreds of Black immigrants set down roots hoping for a brighter tomorrow. Jayme Doll travels to Amber Valley to hear the stories of some of the first Black settlers in Alberta, their challenges and how they pushed on in the first part of our series Beyond Skin Deep – Feb 22, 2021

It feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere. Remote and rural, if you’re not looking for it you could easily blow by it. But it holds important history from Alberta’s past.

Amber Valley is about a two-hour drive north of Edmonton on single-lane highways busy with big rigs and instantly unkind driving conditions when snow falls and the wind picks up. But 115 years ago, when the first Black settlers came to this area, there were no roads at all.

“When they got to Edmonton they had to form wagon trains,” said Mryna Wisdom, who grew up in Amber Valley and whose grandparents were some of the first to set down roots here.

“They would have to use makeshift bridges to cross bodies of water. It was very challenging.”

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Up to 400 Black Americans fled apartheid-like conditions in places like Oklahoma and Mississippi in the early 1900s. Gilbert Williams’ father was one of them. He squeezed his eyes together and shook his head before taking a breath and explaining why his father left.

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“He was on his way from his friends, heard a little ruckus going on and looked and they saw the (Ku Klux) Klan was hanging his friend,” said Williams. “He got some money from his sister and he and his brother left, right then. They weren’t sticking around to find out they’d be next.”

Williams said it’s still difficult to imagine what so many lived through.

Pictures depicting many of the early settlers hang in the Amber Valley hall and museum. Jayme Doll / Global News

At that time Canada had sent out an open invitation to anyone interested to come and settle in the West. It was offering $10-an-acre land to anyone who wanted it.

Amber Valley was one of four Black settlements in Alberta. It was the largest and the most northern community, and had a church, school and post office built by the people in the community.

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But it didn’t take long for some newcomers to be attacked by the same racism and discrimination they hoped to escape, especially in urban centres like Edmonton.

“Segregations started to happen here. Pools were segregated, cinemas were segregated; there were only certain places in town where Black people could live and only certain positions they could hold,” Russell Cobb, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, told Global News.

Cobb, who is also an author who has documented the history of Alberta’s Black settlers, said petitions circulated in the early 1910s and there was a movement to ban Black people from moving to Alberta and owning land.

“The Edmonton municipal council gathered tens of thousands of signatures and they presented that to the federal government,” Cobb said.

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Rosemary Sadlier, an author and social justice advocate, said Canada’s invitation to settlers “was an open call until Black people started to show up.”

“And when that happened, there were efforts made to discourage them from coming into the country,” she said. “Initially, some of that discouragement came through taxes or stopping them at the border.

“They would then start rumours that there was 20 feet of snow that just never went away; just ridiculous things.”

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And when those things didn’t work, Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier signed an order-in-council in 1911 to prevent Black migration for one year.

Sadlier said the order was based on the false claim that “the climate and situation of the west was deemed unsuitable for habitation of people of Africa origin because we would just find it too cold and too hostile to be able to survive.”

It was never signed into law but Sadlier said it ultimately halted Black immigration to Canada.

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Despite huge challenges, farmers in Amber Valley were resilient and some got jobs in the off-season working on the railway.

“They went so far north and the people survived — as did their descendants. I give them very high marks for surviving and providing a way of life for us to go forward and become what we’ve become,” Wisdom said.

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“We grew up thinking we weren’t any different than anyone else. We had a good sense of who we were and our parents realized that education was power. We were taught, get an education and do better than what they had done.”

Wisdom eventually moved to Edmonton and admits things were different.

“I remember very vividly knowing my skin colour — that we wouldn’t find work, to get certain jobs,” she said.

Only a couple of families remain in the Amber Valley area. A community hall painted with a large, bright mural of the first settlers and a quaint museum inside is helping to preserve the stories of this important place. The cabin of the first person born here sits on the same plot of land.

Pictures depicting many of the early settlers hang in the Amber Valley hall and museum. Jayme Doll / Global News

Gilbert Williams drives a school bus in the area and gives tours of the museum. He said he’s never been busier, especially since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement.

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“I’ve been busy right from end of last February up until now. There wasn’t a weekend (it was quiet, and) people are trying to come out and during the week too. Some are just people calling up saying they want to tell their family about Amber Valley,” he said.

He has made it his mission to share the stories of the brave men and women who blazed the trail to this historical place.

“History is important, history is a way of teaching,” he said while standing outside the museum on a chilly winter’s day. “The more we learn, the less likely we are to make the mistakes of the past.”

Amber Valley is being commemorated on a Canada Post stamp. It features prominent members of the community not long ago feared forgotten.