Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 1983, pp. 5-16.
From the turn of the century until World War I, hundreds of thousands of American farmers migrated to western Canada. Not all of them were welcomed. Between 1905 and 1912, more than one thousand black men, women, and children joined the trek. They came mainly from Oklahoma, and they settled in Saskatchewan and Alberta. While their numbers were small in comparison to the total American migration, the appearance of these black settlers aroused bitter race prejudice among western Canadians, many of whom demanded that the Canadian government stop more blacks from coming. How the government went about this task is the subject of this article.
Who were these black immigrants? They were ex-slaves and the descendants of former slaves who had moved westward from the older Southern states following Reconstruction. These people settled in what were then the Oklahoma and Indian Territories, and began leaving for western Canada at the time these "Twin Territories" began preparing for statehood in 1907.
The immediate cause of the migration was racist legislation that Oklahoma aimed at blacks living in the state. Immediately after statehood was achieved in 1907, segregation legislation was passed that confined blacks to separate schools, railroad cars, and seating on street cars. The very first bill introduced in the new state House of Representatives was a "Jim Crow" measure, while in the state Senate it was only the fourth. In 1910, the blacks' rights were again cut back when their right to vote was taken away. Black Oklahomans reacted immediately to these laws by challenging them in the courts and organizing protests. Some even turned to violence. Nothing worked, however, and many began looking for a way out of Oklahoma.
Segregation and disfranchisement were the key factors that sent the blacks toward Canada. Jeff Edwards of Amber Valley, Alberta, claimed that he first became interested in western Canada when Oklahoma began its segregation policies. The blacks who went north to eastern Canada were fleeing slavery, he said; "We in Amber Valley are here because we fled something almost as hard to bear-'Jim Crowism'." One black emigrant group reached St. Paul, Minnesota, in March 1911 and said they had been driven from Oklahoma by the theft of their property and the denial of their right to vote. They also said that there were five thousand more blacks ready to follow them. These sentiments were echoed by one member of a group of black Oklahomans who tried to enter Canada in British Columbia. Only two were admitted, and one was reported in Vancouver as stating, "The people of Oklahoma treat us like dogs. We are not allowed to vote and we are not admitted to any of the theatres or public places. They won't even let us ride the street cars in some of the towns." When asked why they chose Canada, he answered, "We heard about the free lands here and also that everyone had the right to vote and was a free man."