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Last Modified: March 24, 2023
A History of Black Alberta’s Writing

The history of Black writing in Alberta must begin with the recognition that not all writing is written. This seems less absurd when we remember that education, literacy, and the act of writing itself have often been denied to Black people on this continent. Equally, the notion of history has not readily been granted to the capacity of Blackness. In this way we can attend to two significant and limiting assumptions that have plagued the wide dissemination and acknowledgement of Black writing in Alberta.

European explorers first came to this part of the world at the very end of the 18th century, and with them came various Black people. Stephen Bonga was a mixed Black and Ojibwe who came from a well-known fur-trading family. His father was a Black fur trader who had worked for the North West Company. His brother was also a fur trader who was remembered for singing voyageur songs on expeditions. One can imagine Stephen paddling in time with “Alouette” or “Un Canadien Errant” on his Bow River expedition with McKenzie and Rowand in 1823. Think of these songs as performing the earliest example of Black writing in Alberta.

While we may be forced to imagine Stephen Bonga’s voyageur performances as writing, in the 1870s Daniel Williams, a trader who operated in the Peace Country region, produced what is unquestionably one of the earliest examples of text by a Black person. Williams’s most famous text is an angry rebuttal to the HBC Chief Factor threatening to evict him. But an earlier text is more remarkable for being simple notes on the climate in 1872. What could be more central to the Albertan experience than noting the weather? What, therefore, could be more historic a text than this?

If writing about the weather is not iconic Alberta enough for you, my next example comes from Black cowboys and ranchers. John Ware is perhaps Black Alberta’s most famous historical figure. Ware’s original cattle brand, “Four Walking Sticks” (sometimes called “Four Nines”), was published in the 1885 brand book. This makes it the earliest Black cattle brand published in Canada—and makes Ware’s brand part of the written, published word. In other words, if we only shift our conventional understanding of writing just a little bit, a richness of Black writing, otherwise hidden, can be uncovered.

Moving from the nineteenth to the twentieth century ushers in a new phase of Black writing in which newspapers become central. In the early 1900s, many rural Black families from the segregated American south began responding to advertisements from the Canadian government to homestead in the Prairie provinces. Their migration sparked a racist campaign in Albertan papers, but Black writers like Lloyd Dennis Brower in the Lethbridge Herald (1911) defended Black Albertans. By the 1920s, Edmonton had a large enough community to support a regular newspaper column called “Our Negro Citizens,” written by Reverend George Washington Slater. In the style of a community gossip page, the column showed everyday Black lives, unfiltered and humane. If Brower’s writings represent the earliest examples of Black writing to the editor, Slater’s writings demonstrate the earliest Black editorial writing in Alberta. Both were a needed antidote to the racism of the times.

Unfortunately, the campaign against Black people succeeded and Black migration to western Canada all but slowed to a trickle. The period stretching from the 1930s to the 1960s has only a few examples of Black writing, mostly in archives: biographical sketches, financial accounts, uncategorizable scraps, among them a few articles by the odd Black student reporter for the Gateway, and some social justice writings by Violet King, Alberta’s first Black lawyer. Otherwise, it is as though the business of pioneering, of farming and building community did not allow for the pursuit of writing. If not for the publication of The Window of our Memories, a two-volume collection of stories compiled by Velma Carter, Wanda Leffler Akili, and Leah Auzanne Carter (1981 and 1990 respectively) and published by the St. Albert-based B.C.R. Society of Alberta, this period would have gone by almost entirely unremarked.

In the 1980s, a true literary talent emerges. When Claire Harris moved from Trinidad to Canada in 1966, she set in motion a remarkable journey in writing. Over a distinguished career, she published a total of seven books of poetry, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s award, garnered international accolades, and helped to foster literature in Alberta as editor and co-founder of Dandelion and Blue Buffalo literary magazines respectively. Claire Harris is one of the most important poets this province has ever produced.

Claire Harris ushers in a modern era of Black writing. At the heart of this movement is Cheryl Foggo, a descendent of the Black farming pioneers, whose prolific literary output in almost every genre more than makes up for her ancestors’ struggles to find time to write. Her life’s work includes Pourin’ Down Rain (Brush Education), the landmark book about growing up Black on the Canadian Prairies. In her work, Cheryl addresses her ancestors’ legacy on every level and, to me, represents the symbolic centre of Black Albertan writing. In the early 1990s and into the 2000s, we see the emergence of professional writers contributing to the field. The journalist Fil Fraser publishes a number of books, including Running Uphill: The Fast, Short Life of Canadian Champion Harry Jerome (Dragon Hill Publishing). Children’s author Tololwa Mollel publishes numerous books, establishing himself as a leading writer of that genre. Writing as Minister Faust, Malcolm Azania startles with his Afrocentric speculative fiction. This is also when Suzette Mayr emerges as a product of Alberta’s postsecondary writing programs. Her first books were published by NeWest Press, setting her on a path toward multiple award-winning novels, including most recently The Sleeping Car Porter, which won the Giller Prize. Moreover, it must be said, this prestigious prize is owned by Black Alberta as Calgary’s Esi Edugyan has won it twice for her novels Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black (both of which were also shortlisted for the Man Booker prize).

The first two decades of the 21st century have seen a plethora of Black writing assert itself. The first half of that period is marked by slam poets, spoken word artists, and crossover musical artists, especially rap and hip hop: Ian Keteku, Ahmed Ali, Titilope Sonuga (currently Edmonton’s Poet Laureate), Wakefield Brewster (Calgary’s current Poet Laureate) and Kaie Kellough, who won the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize, are examples. Later in this period we also see a rise in Black playwrights and theatre productions. Ellipsis Tree Collective, a Black theatre production company, presented Alberta’s first Black Canadian Theatre series in 2014, and more and more playwrights have been produced since that time, including Lennette Randall, Maria Crooks, Keshia Cheesman, the poet Valerie Mason-John (I am Still Your Negro, University of Alberta Press), the film-maker Melanee Murray Hunt, and the very promising, award-winning Makambe K. Simamba.

Perhaps hearkening back to Stephen Bonga, this time also sees the appearance of écrivains noirs. Emigrants from French-speaking Africa and from Quebec contribute several works: poetry from Tchitala Nyota Kamba (L’Exilée de Makeleles) and Malaïka Ogandaga, novels from Roger Fodjo (Prête-moi ton destin) and Guy Armel Bayegnak (Poids plumes, poids d’or), plays by Robert Suraki Watum and Valécia Pépin, a memoir from former Oiler Georges Laraque (La force d’y croire), as well as second-generation and French-educated writers whose medium is bilingual (Médgine Mathurin, Sympa César, Karima Ashanti Marshall).

Now that we are in the post-George Floyd era, we see a heightened awareness of Black perspectives in the mainstream, as well as an adoption of modern media to deploy those perspectives. Internet-only writers are now the norm, notably Bashir Mohamed, who is a titan on Twitter, and who outlines Black Alberta’s history 280 characters at a time. CBC’s Black on the Prairies also has a key digital presence. Spearheaded by journalists Omayra Issa and Ify Chiwetelu, it provides the most comprehensive offering of the Black experience out there.

There is so much more, but this overview provides a sense of the enormity of Black writing that sang its presence during the fur trade era, that has expressed the complex spirit of this province for over two hundred years since then, and that continues to embody this space I understand as Black Alberta right up to today.


Headshot of Bertrand BickerstethBertrand Bickersteth was born in Sierra Leone, raised in Alberta, and has lived in the U.K. and the U.S. Bickersteth is an educator who also writes poems and plays. His poetry has appeared in several publications, including the Antigonish Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and the Prairie Journal, as well as the anthology The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry (Frontenac House). In 2018, he was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. His most recent work, The Response of Weeds, is a collection of poems published by NeWest Press. He lives in Calgary, teaches at Olds College and often (always, actually) writes about black history in western Canada.


The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry

Published: Feb 01, 2013 by Frontenac House Ltd.
ISBN: 9781897181836
Response of Weeds, The: A Misplacement of Black Poetry on the Prairies

Bertrand Bickersteth (CA)

Published: Apr 01, 2020 by NeWest Press
ISBN: 9781988732794