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Discrimination

Newspaper article about the influx of Blacks to AlbertaDuring the 19th century and the first few years of the 20th century, Alberta’s Black population consisted of a few small groups and individuals scattered throughout the land. Non-Black citizens viewed these Black settlements with curiosity rather than as a threat to their way of life. This perception changed drastically with the arrival of numerous Oklahoma Black settlers between 1907 and 1912. Upon their arrival at the border in Manitoba, Black immigrants were immediately harassed by government officials, who demanded payments and medical clearances.

Notions of racism, distrust, and anger were strong among Canadians witnessing the arrival of so many Black Americans. These feelings, illustrated by racial slurs printed in various newspapers, underline the extent of these negative feelings and clearly suggest that Canadians were uncomfortable with the arrival of large parties of Black settlers. In Manitoba, theEmerson Newspaper summarized Canadians' resentment when it pithily stated: “The negro is not the most desirable class of settlers.”

Invasion of Negroes. A petition by the Edmonton Board of TradeEdmonton’s initial wave of Oklahoma settlers included 94 adults and 24 children. By 1911, the figure rose to over 200. They formed a tight-knit community centred on the Shiloh Baptist Church, located in what is now the Oliver neighbourhood of downtown Edmonton. Edmonton’s upper-class community responded to this influx of Black settlers by passing local resolutions opposing the migration. The Edmonton Board of Trade and the Edmonton Trades and Labour Council vilified the current situation by stating “an unlimited influx of negroes into the province would invariably lower the standard of living.” Both the Board and the Council demanded a head tax of $1,000 for each Black living in the city.

The demands of the Edmonton Board of Trade were supported by similar organizations in Morinville, Strathcona, Fort Saskatchewan, and Calgary. This sort of discrimination was mirrored by the media; the Edmonton Journal emphatically stated to all that “we want no dark spots in Alberta.”  In The University Magazine, J.S. Woodsworth asked: “Are we in Canada to intermarry and become a mongrel race?”

Finding reliable employment became increasingly difficult because hotels and restaurants only wanted to hire White employees. Arguing that the alarming influx of Black settlers would be a serious menace to the future welfare not only of Edmonton, but also of all of Canada, Edmontonians took their dissatisfaction with the Black community one step further when they sent a petition to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier with a list of 3,400 signatures. Mimicking their American neighbours, Canadians believed that Blacks and Whites could not live in proximity: revolts, lawlessness, and continual conflict were bound to erupt. Many argued that the arrival of the Black settler would mark an era of inevitable and bitter racial hatred. Edmontonians believed it was the federal government's responsibility to prevent further Black immigration. The Laurier government was politically vulnerable on the issue as it did not want to agitate the American government or the Black communities living in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Government officials faced a considerable quandary. On 12 April 1911, the federal government drafted an Order-in-Council which stated:

For a period of one year from and after the date here of the landing in Canada shall be [sic] and the same is prohibited of any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.

Across the province, protests were common. In Lethbridge, the arrival of Black Americans was described as a “perilous” situation. C.E. Simmons of Lethbridge addressed a large crowd in Edmonton and condemned the Liberal government for allowing Blacks to settle in the area. Various organizations, including the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, vehemently opposed living in the vicinity of Blacks. An atmosphere of paranoia permeated society as Whites believed that women and children would be subject to sexual exploitation by Blacks living in the area. The media only perpetuated this fear, often fabricating stories about crimes committed by members of Alberta’s Black community. Many prominent government officials, including the Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, reiterated many of his constituents' beliefs. Oliver was quoted as saying: “Canada is the last country open to the White Race. Are we going to preserve it for the White Race, or are we going to permit the Blacks free use of large portions of it?” Alberta’s Black settlers faced racial discrimination on all fronts, including upper-class society, the media, and the government.

Never formally implemented, the Order-in-Council was repealed on 5 October 1911. Instead, the federal government sent agents to Oklahoma to discourage Black migration into Canada. Dr. G.W. Miller, a Black doctor from Chicago, was largely successful in deterring Blacks from moving to Canada. Miller continually reinforced the notion that Black Americans moving to Canada would either starve or freeze to death. The evidence supporting this claim was often farfetched and extreme. Much of Miller’s efforts focused on reminding Black Americans that, unlike the miserably cold Canadian North, the United States boasted a warm climate and rich soil ideal for farming. By 1912, Black Americans living in Oklahoma lost virtually all interest in immigrating to Canada.


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