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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Port Alice pulp mill has been dormant since 2015. (North Island Gazette file photo)
The Port Alice pulp mill site is being ‘recycled’

Bankruptcy company is overseeing de-risking the site, water treatment and environmental monitoring.

Port Hardy Senior Citizens’ Society president Rosaline Glynn holds up the certificate from B.C. Premier John Horgan next to Loaves & Fishes director Peter Sinclair, vice president Kris Huddlestan, and Port Hardy mayor Dennis Dugas. (Submitted photo)
Port Hardy council to nominate Glynn for the Order of British Columbia

Glynn’s nomination was endorsed unanimously by council.

Emergency personnel crews on scene assisting BCEHS with patient care. (Port Hardy Fire Rescue photo)
Speed and alcohol believed to be the cause of Saturday night car crash

More information on the crash could potentially be released at a later date.

Nootka Sound RCMP responded to a workplace fatality report south of Gold River on Monday morning. (Campbell River Mirror photo)
One dead in accident at Western Forest Product’s TFL 19 logging site in Gold River

The RCMP and Work Safe BC are investigating the incident

North Island Gazette file photo of Port Hardy council
Council discusses Highland Manor sale

Port Hardy council debates what approach to take to Highland Manor after sale.

Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Dr. Bonnie Henry pauses for a moment as she gives her daily media briefing regarding COVID-19 for British Columbia in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
7 additional deaths and 542 new COVID-19 cases in B.C.

Provincial health officials reported 18 new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern

A recently finished $4.3-million taxiway extension at the Victoria International Airport (not pictured) is unusable because of a blind spot. (Black Press Media file photo)
Blind spot leaves Victoria airport’s new $4.3-million taxiway extension unusable

Solution has been put on hold by COVID-19 pandemic, says airport authority

Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson (Office of the Chief Justice)
Judge questions whether B.C.’s top doctor appreciated right to religious freedom

Lawyer for province says Dr. Henry has outlined the reasons for her orders publicly

The City of Duncan will implement a new pilot project targeting vandalism this spring. (File photo)
Graffiti trouble? Duncan will give you the brush and the paint to remove it

Initiative based on a successful project to protect Port Alberni from unwanted spray paint

A sample of guns seized at the Pacific Highway border crossing from the U.S. into B.C. in 2014. Guns smuggled from the U.S. are used in criminal activity, often associated with drug gangs. (Canada Border Service Agency)
B.C. moves to seize vehicles transporting illegal firearms

Bill bans sale of imitation or BB guns to young people

BC Housing minister David Eby is concerned that Penticton council’s decision to close a local homeless shelter will result in a “tent city” similar to this one in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / Black Press file)
‘Disappointed and baffled’ B.C. housing minister warns of tent city in Penticton

Penticton council’s decision to close a local homeless shelter could create tent city, says David Eby

This was the scene outside North Saanich’s Parkland Secondary School after an attempted but unsuccessful break-and-enter into the school torched an ATM inside of it. Sidney/North Saanich RCMP did not make any arrests and currently lack suspects as the investigation continues. Members of the public who may have witnessed something or possess other information can contact police at (250) 656-3931 or to Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS. (Submitted)
Money to burn: burglars torch North Saanich high school ATM

Police dogs searched the exterior and interior of the school after early morning break-and-enter

The first of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s long-range maritime patrol aircraft—the Dash-8—becomes operational. (Photo supplied by PAL Aerospace)
Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s new De Havilland Dash-8-100 long-range surveillance air craft is capable of staying aloft for eight to 10 hours for a variety of missions up and down the B.C. coast. (Photo supplied by PAL Aerospace)
New plane will double DFO’s surveillance capacity in B.C.

The Dash-8 will fly out of Campbell River for enforcement, conservation missions

A recently published study out of UBC has found a link between life satisfaction levels and overall health. (Pixabay)
Satisfied with life? It’s likely you’re healthier for it: UBC study

UBC psychologists have found those more satisfied with their life have a 26% reduced risk of dying

Most Read