‘I did not see people who looked like me’ — being Black in Alberta

"Our history is just as long as European history."

Engaging discussions: Kris Demeanor (left), Cheryl Foggo and Miranda Martini as well as Chris Dela Torre (right) who acted as moderator discuss audience questions after a screening of John Ware Reclaimed for Black History Month in Central Library. (Pearl Nkomo/The Press)

Cowboy and rancher John Ware helped spearhead the growth of Calgary as a city. Oliver Bowen managed the design and construction of the first line of the C-Train system. Violet King Henry shattered barriers as a lawyer and community advocate.

They are just three of the many Black Albertans who helped shape this province.

Despite this, many Alberta students have learned little to nothing about Black accomplishments in this province, or the fact that Black people lived in Alberta before the civil rights movement.

But they did. And we still do.

“I definitely had this undertone of never quite feeling comfortable in this space or never feeling like I really belonged fully somewhere,” says Margo Cunningham-Lorenzo, who came to Calgary as an infant adopted from Ethiopia.

“I did not see people who looked like me and I did not see myself reflected.”

Alberta has a 4.3 per cent Black population according to the 2023 census. Yet, we often feel forgotten, especially when it comes to the history of our own province.

“Growing up, mixed race, my community was mostly predominantly white,” says Jasmyn Kennedy, a teacher in northeast Calgary. “We had, I think, two Black students.

“I always identified as Black because I looked more Black. Growing up was very difficult. It’s still very difficult because I don’t know how to identify. Should I identify as white or identify as Black? How do I connect?”

Even for monoracial Black people, figuring out who you are is difficult. Especially when you move from an incredibly diverse area to a less diverse area.

In Canada, Ontario and Quebec are epicentres of Black culture. These were some of the first landing places for many African and Caribbean immigrants, as well as formerly enslaved Americans.

For Coun. Courtney Walcott, moving to Alberta from Toronto as a teenager proved to be jarring.

“I went from having black people and people of colour surrounding me to being a noticeable minority,” he said. “I’ve never had that experience until I moved to Alberta.”

“I had extreme culture shock when I arrived, where I was like, ‘Where is everybody?’”

He’s not the only Black Albertan to feel this way.

Poet laureate Wakefield Brewster moved to Calgary from Toronto 18 years ago when he was 33.

“When I got here, it was a different kind of growing up because I had left my comfort zone and I knew the dynamics of Scarborough, of Toronto,” he said. “Whether I felt that I was with my brothers and sisters, or whether I felt isolated – in Toronto you understood where you were.”

“It was your life.”

The poet laureate moved to Calgary in 2006 when the population was less than a million

“It felt really white,” he said. “It was a culture shock. It was really white.”

Today, Calgary’s population is 1.64 million, with much greater diversity. Despite this, it’s still easy to feel isolated.

Brewster’s involvement in the arts – along with historian and playwright Cheryl Foggo and dancer Lisa LaTouche – is how he found the community he so badly wanted.

For Walcott, it was looking for Black people around him, engaging with his students from his time as a social studies teacher as well as his own family.

But for some, even finding a community can be difficult. Cunningham-Lorenzo was adopted from Ethiopia into a white family, though her siblings were adopted as well. She grew up in predominantly white spaces.

“In a way, it was a gift, as it subjected me to a lot of experiences that Black people typically would not have got to experience like going to events where it was just all white people at my dad’s company,” said Cunningham-Lorenzo.

She explained how it helped her learn about code-switching – changing up your behaviour and speech to fit in with the environment.

“I was always the one to reach out first, to say ‘Hi’ first,” because I was this little black girl and they were all these white kids,” she said.

“If I wanted to make friends, if I wanted to speak to a person at this event or whatever, I knew I had to speak first.”

The culture that Black Albertans is unique from Toronto, or New York City. Black people have been in Alberta since just before the turn of the century, and John Ware is just one example.

Cheryl Foggo, a historian and artist, is a descendant of the Black migration of 1910 from America. Her family originally settled in Maidstone, Sask. She grew up in Bowness before it was annexed into Calgary.

Her research and personal interest in Black history led her to a career of studying Black involvement in the Prairies. A major focus of her work is reclaiming John Ware and his story, as someone who deeply cared for him, and knew his last living relatives.

“I just think there’s a huge gap between what people know about our history, Black history and what they think they know,” she said. “I don’t want to minimize or overlook the fact that there were people here connected to the land for thousands and thousands of years before us. But our history here is just as long as European history.

“Despite that, I think a lot of times, young Black people don’t feel that sense of belonging here.”

But they do belong.

“I just want people to stand firm and solid in the knowledge that Black folks have been walking these lands and growing vegetables and fishing and loving and living on this land for such a long time,” she said. “And they did that and they made space for me.”

“I want to continue making space for other people who come along after me.”

Space is what Black Albertans truly want. Space to live, and to exist. Space to acknowledge our forefathers and foremothers were here.

Space to affirm that we are here, that we aren’t going anywhere.

Giving respect: A seat is reserved for the late Viola Desmond during a presentation held for Black History Month at the Central Library in Downtown Calgary on Monday February 26, 2024. She refused to leave a segregated whites-only area in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and was wrongfully detained as a result. (Photo by Pearl Nkomo/SAIT)
About Pearl Nkomo 4 Articles
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Pearl Nkomo is working as a writer for The Press in 2024.