Ron Mapp poses for a photo in Edmonton, on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. Mapp grew up in Amber Valley, Alta. and his great-grandfather was one of the scouts who visited the area and returned with the first wave of African-American settlers in 1910. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Ron Mapp poses for a photo in Edmonton, on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. Mapp grew up in Amber Valley, Alta. and his great-grandfather was one of the scouts who visited the area and returned with the first wave of African-American settlers in 1910. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

‘One of the biggest Black settlements in Western Canada’ has rich history

About 300 people settled in Amber Valley, about 170 kilometres north of Edmonton

There isn’t much left in Amber Valley.

There’s a community hall, a few homes and a cemetery. Former residents say people driving by on the highway might not even notice it’s there.

But they quickly add the almost forgotten community in northern Alberta has a rich history.

“Amber Valley was one of the biggest Black settlements in Western Canada,” Ron Mapp, an Edmontonian who grew up in the community, said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

His great-grandfather, Henry Sneed, was one of the scouts who visited the area then returned with the first wave of African-American settlers in 1910.

Myrna Wisdom, also a former resident who now lives in Edmonton, said her maternal grandparents were part of that first group and her paternal grandparents settled in Amber Valley about three years later.

“They went from Edmonton to Athabasca by wagon train … then from Athabasca to Pine Creek,” she said. “My uncle said they had to blaze a trail as they went.”

About 300 people settled in Amber Valley, about 170 kilometres north of Edmonton, and the Canadian Encyclopedia notes that the population grew to about 1,000 by 1911.

The community was one of several in Alberta and Saskatchewan settled by Black people from Oklahoma, Texas and other southern states, who were looking for a life away from racial segregation and violence.

They came to Canada in response to the federal government’s Dominion Lands Act, which was passed in 1872 to encourage settlement on the Prairies.

Other communities settled by Black Americans included Wildwood, Breton and Campsie in Alberta and the Maidstone area in Saskatchewan.

Cheryl Foggo, an author, playwright and filmmaker in Calgary, said it’s important for their stories to be told.

“We, in Canada, have done a very poor job of sharing our Black history widely,” she said. “Black history is just history. It is a part of our history and yet it is not widely known.”

Foggo, a descendant of the migration to Saskatchewan, said Black families who settled in Canada brought rich cultural traditions and left a legacy of incredible contributions.

She noted engineer Oliver Bowen, who grew up in Amber Valley, managed the design and construction of the first line of Calgary’s light rail transit system. Musician Eleanor Collins, whose parents settled in the area, was the first Black person in North America to host her own television show.

Foggo said Black Americans who settled in Western Canada faced some pushback. Eventually Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier passed an order-in-council to ban them from entering Canada for a year. It never became law, but the government’s actions effectively ended the migration, she said.

Foggo explained Black preachers were hired to go to the southern states with messages about how difficult it was to live in the cold and how Canada was just as racist.

Those who grew up in Amber Valley, however, said they have fond memories of the place.

“You knew everybody. Everybody was like your aunt or your uncle,” said Mapp. “We had lots of fun growing up.”

Mapp said his family experienced some discrimination, but noted it wasn’t abundant and was often based on ignorance.

“Only education opens the mind,” he said.

Gilbert Williams, whose father homesteaded in the Athabasca area, gives tours at the Amber Valley Museum in the community hall.

“We have a homestead map, which shows the settlers that came to the Amber Valley area,” he said. There was also a school, a post office and a church. “It was a well-established community.”

Williams said a lot has been lost, but the museum helps people learn about Amber Valley through exhibits, a mural on the side of the building and a commemorative plaque.

Canada Post has also issued stamps as part of February’s Black History Month series to celebrate the Black pioneers who founded Amber Valley and Willow Grove, N.B.

Wisdom said the Amber Valley stamp collection, which has her aunt in one of the photos, has generated a lot of interest in the community.

Mapp’s great-grandfather Sneed is also featured on the stamp.

“It’s beautiful, but I don’t know why they waited 110 years to recognize the district or didn’t teach it in any of the schools,” he said. “So many people today say they’ve never heard of it.

“How can you have a place of 300 or 400 Black people and people say they’ve never heard of it?”

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

Black History Month

Just Posted

Comox Valley RCMP had access to 20 Street blocked off between Cousins and Choquette avenues as they conducted a raid of a house on the block. Photo by Terry Farrell
Comox Valley RCMP raid Courtenay problem house, several arrests made

Neighbours have reached out to media on several occasions with complaints about the property

Darcy Rhodes (left) says his grandfather’s bonsai trees are his ‘babies.’ (Courtesy of Tamara Bond)
Construction takes place on Bamfield Main in early February 2021. (PHOTO COURTESY CTV NEWS)
Ongoing Bamfield roadwork unrelated to planned $30M fix

Construction by Mosaic unrelated to $30M upgrade ordered in wake of fatal bus crash

Protestors against old growth logging gather in front of the courthouse in Victoria on Thursday morning. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)
Fairy Creek protesters gather at Victoria courthouse

Logging company seeks injunction to remove blockades near its Port Renfrew operation

One person is dead after a camper van caught fire Thursday morning in Victoria's Beacon Hill Park. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
UPDATED: One person dead after vehicle fire in Beacon Hill Park

Investigation into Victoria death in early stages

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry head for the B.C. legislature press theatre to give a daily update on the COVID-19 pandemic, April 6, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. nears 300,000 COVID-19 vaccinations, essential workers next

564 new cases, four deaths, no new outbreaks Thursday

Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne speaks in the B.C. legislature, March 4, 2021. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals, NDP sing in harmony on local election reforms

Bill regulates paid canvassers, allows people in condo buildings

The intersection of Melrose Street and Third Avenue. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Suspect in custody after two pedestrians struck in Port Alberni hit and run

RCMP asking for video footage, credit witnesses for quick arrest

(National Emergency Management Agency)
No tsunami risk to B.C. from powerful New Zealand earthquake: officials

An 8.1 magnitude earthquake shook the north of New Zealand Thursday morning

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
Pandemic stress, isolation key factors as to why Canadians turned to cannabis, alcohol

Study found that isolation played key role in Canadians’ substance use

Crews disassemble the iconic red and white KFC bucket from a sign on Goldstream Avenue. (Photo courtesy of Mark Schoor)
Iconic KFC bucket removed from Goldstream Avenue

Popular fast-food chain closes Langford location

Grand Forks’ Gary Smith stands in front of his Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster float. Photo: Submitted
Grand Forks’ Flying Spaghetti Monster leader still boiling over driver’s licence photo

Gary Smith, head of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster of B.C., said he has since spoken to lawyers

(Pxhere)
B.C. research reveals how pandemic has changed attitudes towards sex, health services

CDC survey shows that 35 per cent of people were worried about being judged

Clockwise from top left: Malahat First Nation Chief George Harry and councillors Steve Henry and Cindy Harry address community members in a video posted to YouTube on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (Screenshot)
Malahat Nation confirms first two cases of COVID-19

Community has been under stay-at-home order since Jan. 7

Most Read