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'We have been here for a long time': group promotes black history in Alberta

They're currently interviewing descendants of the first pioneers.

Debbie Beaver is part of a new non-profit group working to document the experiences of the early black settlers to Alberta.

Kevin Tuong / Metro Order this photo

Debbie Beaver is part of a new non-profit group working to document the experiences of the early black settlers to Alberta.

Debbie Beaver is a fourth-generation Albertan who gets tired of people asking where she’s from.

The answer is a farm near Barrhead, but it doesn't satisfy most who ask, she said.

“They would say, ‘Well, before that, where was your dad from?’” she said.

“Well, my dad was born in the same place.”

As Black History month unfolds, Beaver is working to make more people aware of the long history black settlement has here. To do that she's part of new non-profit group that's aiming to create a historical exhibit and even pushing to see black history added to the provincial curriculum.

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Beaver’s ancestors were settlers. She was raised on the same land her great-grandparents settled after fleeing the oppressive Jim Crow laws in the United States.

They endured their first winter living in a dugout covered by logs they’d chopped down, Beaver said.

Many black pioneers came to Alberta for the same reasons Europeans did — for the rich farmland the Canadian government was giving away cheap (or for free), having essentially taken it from Indigenous peoples who were already living on it.

Beaver said there was racism in Canada for black people, but the remote locale offered the new arrivals an escape from the oppression they faced south of the border.

“Down in the States you couldn’t go anywhere, but in Alberta the rural people didn’t suffer as much as the people in the city, because they were self-sufficient,” she said.

Residents of the main black communities also lived close enough to each other that they had an active social life too, she said.  

“It was hard, the harsh winters and all the things they faced,” she said. “Our ancestors helped pave the way for others."

So far the group has interviewed about 45 elderly descendants of black settlers.  

They’re also working with the Royal Alberta Museum on a future exhibit that will showcase the experiences of those settlers.

“That’s all we want: to have it recognized that we have been here for a long time,” Beaver said.

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