Long before the Edwards family
moved to Canada's west, Black people (or African-Canadians, as some prefer
to be called) had a long history of immigration and settlement in Canada.
Historical accounts cite a man named Mattieu da Costa, traveling with
the Champlain expedition to Port Royal in 1604, as the first black person
in Canada. It is said that Da Costa served as an interpreter between the
French and the Micmac Indians of the area. In 1628, a young, 8 year old
boy from Madagascar by the name of Olivier Le Jeune arrived in Quebec
and was the first recorded slave sold in New France. He was probably the
first person of African origin to live most of his life in Canada.
By 1763, more than 5,000 blacks had left the United States to live in
the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario. Having sided with the British during
the American War of Independence (The Revolutionary War), they came to
Canada as United Empire Loyalists, some as free men and some as slaves
tempted by the promise of freedom. Although promised land by the British,
they received land of varying quality land, and in fact, some received
no lad at all.
The next group of blacks to settle here was a band of Jamaican Maroons.
Descendant of black slaves who had escaped from the Spanish and British
rulers of Jamaica, they had fled north. Later, between 1813 and 1816,
2000 slaves who had sought refuge behind British lines during the War
of 1812 were taken to Nova Scotia. But the largest number of American
blacks arrived in Canada independently, one by one, fleeing slavery and
discrimination in the U.S. Using a network of secret routes known as the
Underground Railroad, they were helped by both American and Canadian whites
By the time of the American Civil War in 1861, around 30,000 fugitives
had already found their way to Canada. This included about 800 free African
Americans who migrated from California to Vancouver Island in the late
1850s, escaping the racial discrimination that was imposed by law in their
home state. When American slavery ended in 1865, many thousands of African
Canadians returned to the US to restart their lives under the promise
Though slavery was abolished after the war, discrimination was not. Because
of their second-class citizen status in many states, small groups of black
Americans continued to move into Canada. J.D. Edwards was one of more
than 1000 blacks, despising the segregation and discrimination they still
experienced in their home state of Oklahoma, who moved to the Canadian
Prairies, particularly Alberta, between 1909-11.
While various individuals and groups of blacks had come north since the
late 1800s, the black population in Canada did not increase substantially
until the 1960s. Changes in the Immigration Act removed a bias against
non-white immigrants and permitted large numbers of qualified West Indians
and Africans to enter Canada. A great influx of black people came at that
time, greatly outnumbering the original black population in every Canadian
region except the Maritimes. Between 1950 and 1995, about 300,000 immigrants
arrived from the West Indies and over 150,000 from Africa (which also
included persons of Asian and European descent).
As for their settlement here, most of the early black Loyalists, Maroons
and American refugees in the Maritimes were located by government policy
into segregated communities on the outskirts of larger white towns. Halifax,
Shelburne, Digby and Guysborough in Nova Scotia and Saint John and Fredericton
in New Brunswick had all-black settlements in their immediate neighbourhoods.
Saltspring Island and the city of Victoria were the main locations for
black settlers in 19th-century British Columbia.
In Ontario, refugees from the Underground Railroad tended to concentrate
in settlements, less as a consequence of government policy than for the
sake of mutual support and protection against white prejudice, as well
as American kidnappers who tried to take them back "home."
Most of Ontario's black settlements were in and around Windsor, Chatham,
London, St Catharines and Hamilton. Toronto had a black district, and
there were smaller concentrations of blacks near Barrie, Owen Sound and
Guelph. In Ontario, the Common Schools Act provided for separate schools
for blacks and Roman Catholics, leading in some cases, to whites refusing
to have their children attend schools with them. In Hamilton, Ontario,
there were even riots as some parents tried to prevent Blacks from attending
schools with White children.
In the early post-Confederation years, government officials encouraged
people from the British Isles and northern Europe to come and cultivate
the Canadian west, but they discouraged those of African descent, including
farmers and agricultural laborers, from joining in this endeavour. By
the turn of this century however, many identifiable African-Canadian communities,
(including the one in Amber Valley) were prospering from coast to coast.
About 1900, a number of black people arrived to work on the new transcontinental
railways and settled primarily in Montreal and Toronto. Others were recruited
through government schemes to provide cheap labour in Nova Scotia for
Sydney's steel plants and the coal mines of Glace Bay.
Black migrants to Alberta early in the 20th century, including J.D. Edwards
and his wife Martha, established several rural settlements around Edmonton.
Like them, most of Canada's black population was very isolated, not only
from whites, but from other black communities. The pattern began to break
down in the 1930s and 1940s as rural citizens migrated to the cities in
search of jobs. Many of the original black settlements were abandoned
for the lure of city jobs.
The new black migrants coming to Canada in the last few decades, have
come from the West Indies and Africa, and have been overwhelmingly directed
towards Canada's main cities. Blacks are now among the most urbanized
of all Canada's ethnic groups.