A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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General History


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 and Natives.

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 of freedom.

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.

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