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 construction zone remains for now at Clover Point, but plans for a new pedestrian zone and partially closed traffic loop were approved by Victoria councillors on Thursday. (Don Descoteau/News Staff)
Victoria council compromises with partial closure of Clover Point

Option preserves parking 14 spots facing ocean, creates more pedestrian space

(Black Press Media file photo)
Trees Cannabis to reignite downtown Victoria location as licensed store

The dispensary will reopen its 230 Cook St. location on Saturday

A wind warning is in effect for Greater Victoria Thursday afternoon. (Black Press Media file photo)
Strong winds predicted for Greater Victoria

Environment Canada issues warning for Thursday afternoon

Sergeant Francis Dion with the box containing HMCS Calgary’s new secret mascot costume. (HMCSNCSMCalgary/Facebook)
Don Devenney is a Goldstream Gazette 2021 Local Hero as Community Builder of the year. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)
West Shore volunteer’s efforts an exercise in adventurous pursuits

Don Devenney is the 2021 recipient of the Community Builder Award

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of Feb. 23

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Black Press Media File Photo)
POLL: Are you struggling with Greater Victoria’s cost of housing?

While Victoria remains one of the most expensive cities in the country… Continue reading

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools is preparing a rapid response team proposal for submission to the B.C. Ministry of Education. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district chosen as COVID-19 rapid response team

Team to consist of SD68 and Island Health staff, according to B.C. Ministry of Education

A new survey has found that virtual visits are British Columbian’s preferred way to see the doctor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)
Majority of British Columbians now prefer routine virtual doctor’s visits: study

More than 82% feel virtual health options reduce wait times, 64% think they lead to better health

Captain and Maria, a pair of big and affectionate akbash dogs, must be adopted together because they are so closely bonded. (SPCA image)
Shuswap SPCA seeks forever home for inseparable Akbash dogs

A fundraiser to help medical expenses for Captain and Maria earned over 10 times its goal

The missing camper heard a GSAR helicopter, and ran from his tree well waving his arms. File photo
Man trapped on Manning mountain did nearly everything right to survive: SAR

The winter experienced camper was overwhelmed by snow conditions

Castlegar doctor Megan Taylor contracted COVID-19 in November. This photo was taken before the pandemic. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay doctor shares experience contracting COVID-19

Castlegar doctor shares her COVID experience

Ashley Paxman, 29, is in the ICU after being struck by a vehicle along Highway 97 Feb. 18, 2021. She remains in critical condition. (GoFundMe)
Okanagan woman in ICU with broken bones in face after being struck by car

She remains in serious condition following Feb. 18 incident

Most Read