Around the turn of the 20th century, groups of African-Americans looked to the Prairies for new opportunities and found familiar challenges.
Canada was running newspaper ads at the time promoting settlement of its west, and the message reached black farmers in Oklahoma.
“In Oklahoma they had run into some discrimination and persecution,” said Alan B. Anderson, author of Settling Saskatchewan: History and Demography of Ethnic Settlements.
“So a number of families… settled together and headed north.”
But Anderson said the pioneers didn’t find the equality they were after.
“The province – and the predecessor to the province before 1905 – was very Anglo-conformist,” he said. “They wanted first and foremost Anglo settlers.”
Anderson writes in his book that farmers’ organizations and boards of trade “pressured the federal government to halt the immigration and settlement of blacks.”
Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier even went so far as to approve a short-lived rule excluding people of African heritage from entering the country. He also sent a representative south of the border to counter the efforts of his own propaganda and convince black communities not to move.
Before Laurier put a stop to the process in 1911, said Anderson, around 1,000 black settlers made their way into Western Canada with most homesteading in Alberta.
The best-defined rural settlement in Saskatchewan, he added, was located north of Maidstone along the North Saskatchewan River in what is known as the Eldon district.
Although racist attitudes prevented black families from sending their kids to the mainstream white school in the area, the community managed to thrive before disbanding in the 1940s.
“The perseverance and sheer determination of the black settlers helped them to defy and overcome the racial stereotyping that they encountered from Canadian officials at every level and not the least from their neighbours in Sasktchewan,” writes Anderson.
Today a Baptist church and a historic cemetery still stand at the Eldon site in commemoration of Saskatchewan’s black pioneers.