Home | The Settlement of Oklahoma Blacks in Western Canada | The Canadian Response
The Settlement of Oklahoma Blacks in Western Canada:
The Canadian Response
As Bruce Shephard has noted, roughly three quarters of a million Americans moved to Canada in the period from the1890s to the 1920s.1 Blacks made up a miniscule proportion of this massive wave of settlement, but despite their tiny numbers they had a major impact. The first few Black settlers to arrive to take up land in 1908 and 1909 seem to have produced little reaction.2 As was the case with Alfred Shadd, individual Black settlers were seen more as curiosities than threats. By 1910, however, the numbers of Black settlers were sufficient that greater notice was taken. The Edmonton Board of Trade has the somewhat dubious distinction of raising the first obvious public complaint about these new settlers.
At its April 12, 1910 meeting the Edmonton Board of Trade discussed the growing numbers of Black settlers arriving in western Canada and noted that some 100 Blacks were living in Edmonton at the time. The debate was apparently initiated and led by a Mr. Powell who suggested that the immigration of Blacks was likely to produce similar social problems as in the southern United States and who was reported to have said “We want settlers that will assimilate with the Canadian people and in the negro we have a settler that will never do that.” Powell went on to describe Blacks as “at best undesirable” as citizens. Various suggestions were made to discourage these Black settlers. Perhaps inevitably a punitive “head tax,” a policy which had previously proved reasonably successful in limiting Chinese immigration, was proposed, while Powell suggested simply passing a resolution “disapproving of negro immigration” might suffice. In the end a committee composed of Powell and a Mr. Montgomery and Mr. Fisher was appointed to report to the Board of Trade on the issue.3 Little came of this initial flurry of concern, but Edmonton’s Board of Trade would be in the forefront of opposition to Black immigration when it did become a major issue the following year.
Canadian immigration authorities also started to take an interest in the issue. According to Bruce Shepard, attempts were made to keep Blacks from Oklahoma from obtaining immigration literature and plans were made to use medical inspections and other administrative deterrents with groups of Blacks attempting to enter Canada.4 However, as Palmer and Palmer point out, Canadian politicians and immigration officials were reluctant to go further and openly ban Black immigration because to do so risked offending the American government and Black voters in Ontario and Nova Scotia.5 Harold Troper has suggested that Canadian immigration agents in the United States had been informally discouraging Black settlers for some time and with considerable success. Troper’s research suggests that Canadian agents often refused to grant Settler’s Certificates, which entitled their bearers to discounted rail travel in Canada—and incidentally helped track immigration—to potential Black immigrants. He also suggests that they used whatever informal means they had at their disposal to discourage Black settlers.6
While pressure to limit Black immigration, or even eliminate it all together, grew in Canada, in Oklahoma new groups of potential settlers were being organized. One group of new settlers attracted a remarkable degree of attention. Its leader, Henry Sneed, had visited western Canada in 1910 to scout land before returning to Clearview, Oklahoma to recruit settlers. By early 1911 Sneed and a party of 194 men, women and children were ready to leave for Canada. A second group of about 200 people waited behind to see what would happen when the first reached Canada. Reports of these and other parties of potential settlers reached Canada and helped to raise tensions.
When Sneed and his party reached Emerson by train they were subjected to very rigorous medical examinations—clearly intended to keep as many as possible out of Canada. Unfortunately, if Canadian authorities had hoped to use medical examinations to keep Sneed and his followers out, they were disappointed. All of the prospective immigrants were found to be quite healthy. They were also well supplied with money, livestock, and other settler effects, thus removing any practical and financial objections to their entry into Canada. Sneed also had a good sense of his rights and apparently he appealed to American diplomats in Ottawa and officials in Washington, who determined that Canada had no basis in law to exclude Black Americans from entering Canada as potential settlers. Sneed and his party had to be admitted to Canada.7
The progress of the Sneed party from Emerson to Winnipeg and then west to Edmonton by train attracted considerable newspaper interest, and reports of the group’s journey frequently prompted letters to the editor from individuals suggesting that Blacks were poor candidates for successful homesteading and that their arrival would result in all manner of social and cultural problems. It also spurred various groups into action to try to prevent additional immigration of Blacks. Although by no means limited to Edmonton, opposition to any new influx of Black settlers was centred in that city.8
In Edmonton, the Board of Trade resumed its leadership role in opposing Black settlement, but now it was supported by a number of other organizations ranging from the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) to the Edmonton Trades and Labour Council. The Board of Trade prepared a petition addressed to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, which was posted prominently in a number of Edmonton area businesses and taken door to door by canvassers. As Palmer and Palmer note, despite having a total population of just 25,000 people at the time, some 3000 Edmontonians signed.9 This petition, dated April 18, 1911 read in part:
We, the undersigned residents of the City of Edmonton, respectfully urge upon your attention and that of the Government of which you are the head, the serious menace to the future welfare of a large portion of western Canada, by reason of the alarming influx of Negro settlers.
This influx commenced about four years ago in a very small way, only four or five families coming in the first season, followed by thirty or forty families the next year. Last year several hundred negroes arrived at Edmonton and settled in surrounding territory. Already this season nearly three hundred have arrived; and the statement is made, both by these arrivals and by press dispatches, that these are but an advance guard of hosts to follow. We submit that the advent of such Negroes as are now here was most unfortunate for the country, and that further arrivals would be disastrous. We cannot admit as any factor the argument that these people may be good farmers or good citizens. It is a matter of common knowledge that it has been proved in the United States that Negroes and whites cannot live in proximity without the occurrence of revolting lawlessness, and the development of bitter race hatred…10
Bruce Shepard also noted that some rather dubious journalism fanned the flames of racial anxiety. On April 4, 1911 a 15 year-old girl was found bound and unconscious on the floor of her Edmonton home. She had apparently been drugged with chloroform and the house robbed. The victim initially claimed to have been attacked by a “black man,” and in short order an arrest was made for the presumed crime. Although the man arrested had no connection to Sneed’s party, popular opinion quickly made the association. Within days newspapers across Canada were filled with lurid headlines outlining the outrage. Soon after, it emerged that the story was a total fabrication. The girl had lost a ring and invented the entire story to avoid punishment. Unfortunately the information that the story was false was not nearly so newsworthy as the idea that a Black had attacked and robbed a young girl, and Shepard notes that this incident was used to help justify the need to prevent further Black immigration.11
The Laurier government was politically vulnerable on this issue, not least because Frank Oliver was both Minister of the Interior—and thus responsible for immigration policy—and the Member of Parliament for Edmonton. Oliver and immigration officials decided to follow up on suggestions made to them in 1910 by the aptly named William J. White, who was the senior Canadian official overseeing immigration agents in the United States, that the best solution to the problem was to discourage Black immigration at its source in Oklahoma.12
In addition, Oliver had an Order in Council drafted and approved on August 12, 1911 that read as follows:
For a period of one year from and after the date hereof 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.13
Although approved, the Order in Council was never used and it was quickly withdrawn in October when it became clear it was not needed. Instead White’s plan proved to be sufficient. The government of Canada hired a number of agents, who travelled to Oklahoma to discourage Black immigration. Canadian railway companies were apparently also enlisted to ‘ask American railways to discourage black migration to Canada.”14
These government agents had considerable success. A Black physician from Chicago, C. W. Speers, was perhaps the most successful of all. He enlisted the help of Black clergymen in his efforts since many of these clergymen were concerned that emigration was eroding their church populations. Speers travelled from church to church with the message that emigration to Canada meant starvation and bitter cold, trouble crossing the border and securing land, and no release from discrimination if you got there. This message confirmed what many Blacks in Oklahoma had been hearing from other sources as well. Black newspapers had reprinted some of the more inflammatory stories and editorials from Canadian sources, and many community leaders in Oklahoma had soured on the idea of migration. Instead Black political and cultural leaders were increasingly inclined to argue that Blacks should stay in Oklahoma to fight for their political and civil rights there. Barring that, back-to-Africa emigration schemes seemed more promising. By 1912 virtually all interest in migration to Canada to homestead had dissipated among Oklahoma Blacks.15
In the end, the supposed flood of Black settlers from Oklahoma turned out to be a tiny rivulet in a much larger story of American migration to Canada. In total, just 1000 to 1500 Blacks migrated to western Canada between 1908 and 1911, although most historians agree the numbers might have been much larger if Canada had proved more welcoming. Small though their numbers were, they produced a significant public reaction and forced the Canadian government into changing its immigration promotion tactics and policies. Although the “deemed unsuitable” Order in Council was never put into effect because other more politely diplomatic means were found to stop Blacks from Oklahoma from settling in Canada, this Order in Council represents an interesting example of how Frank Oliver and the Laurier government reacted to public pressure. It is also a fascinating policy document in that it singles out one group of American settlers as “unsuitable,” while trying not to limit American settlement in Canada in general or cause a breach in Canadian-American relations.16
1 Shepard, Deemed Unsuitable, p. 66. Other historians suggest slightly lower numbers of American settlers. Palmer and Palmer use a figure of over one half million, for example, for roughly the same period. Palmer and Palmer, “Black Experience,” p. 370. Randy Widdis, in the most recent and perhaps most comprehensive study of American immigration to Canada, offers figures which generally support Shephard’s higher number, although Widdis notes that not all of this immigration was directed at western Canada. For a very thorough historical geographic analysis of American settlement patterns, particularly in Saskatchewan, see Randy Widdis, With Scarcely a Ripple: Anglo-Canadian Migration into the United States and Western Canada 1880–1920 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998) esp. pp. 290-336. The discrepancy appears to lie in how American settlers were defined in immigration statistics. Many settlers defined as members of ethnic groups had resided for some time in the United States, making them both “ethnic” and “American.” No matter what figure you use however, Blacks made up a tiny proportion of this migration.
2 According to Palmer and Palmer there was some limited local concern expressed in Edmonton, Calgary and other parts of Alberta in 1908 and 1909 about the arrival of Black settlers. Ibid. p. 371.
3 See Edmonton Bulletin, April 13, 1910, p. 8 “Oppose Negro Immigration.”
4 Shepard, Deemed Unsuitable, pp. 72-3.
5 Palmer and Palmer, “Black Experience”, p.371.
6 See Troper, Only Farmers, esp. pp. 128-31.
7 The story of the Sneed party is detailed in Shepard, Deemed Unsuitable, pp. 73-4.
8 Newspaper reports from Winnipeg and Calgary suggest that citizens of those cities were opposed to Black settlement, and various petitions, resolutions of community organizations, and letters to editors suggest these views were also widely held throughout western Canada from Lethbridge, Saskatoon and Yorkton to small towns such as Morinville, north of Edmonton.
9 Palmer and Palmer, “Black Experience,” p. 371.
10 A copy of this petition and supporting letter can be found in the City of Edmonton Archives in a file on Black History.
11 Shepard, Deemed Unsuitable, pp. 78-81.
12 In a letter to the Minister of the Interior dated 1909, White discussed the issue of Black immigration in some detail and noted the political difficulties involved in trying to discourage this migration to western Canada. He outlined some of the informal measures his agents had been taking to deal with the issue up to that point, which he described as “makeshift.” See Troper, Only Farmers, p. 131. The following year White compiled a larger report on Black immigration and how it might be discouraged for Frank Oliver. This report emphasized both the undesirable nature of Black settlers—in White’s eyes—and the need to step up efforts to discourage potential immigrants before they left for Canada. To this end, White began to recruit Black clergymen to speak out against emigration to Canada. Ibid. pp. 134-36.
13 Shepard, Deemed Unsuitable, p.100.
14 Palmer and Palmer, “Black Experience,” p. 372.
15 See Ibid. p.372 and Shepard, Deemed Unsuitable, pp. 86-101.
Troper offers a good summary of the broader impact of this handful of Black
settlers. He concludes that their impact: …on the development of a
racist immigration policy in Canada was great. The dangers represented by
Creek-Negro settlement, real or imagined, forced the Department to adopt a
racist double standard with respect to American immigrants…and to adapt
administration of existing legislation to meet ends not perceived by those who
had enacted that legislation.
Troper, Only Farmers, p. 145.