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 current B.C. Men’s curling champions, Rick Sawatsky (Vernon and now living and working in Kelowna, from left), Andrew Nerpin (Kelowna), Jim Cotter (Vernon) and Steve Laycock (Saskatoon), have yet to find the win column at the 2021 Tim Hortons Brier in Calgary. (Black Press - file photo)
B.C. looking for Brier victory

Team B.C. falls to 0-2 Sunday, March 7, with 10-7 loss to Wild Card 1 entry from Manitoba

Forty-seven vaccination clinics will open across Interior Health beginning March 15. (Canadian Press)
48 COVID-19 vaccine clinics to open across Interior Health

Select groups can book appointments starting Monday

Forty-seven vaccination clinics will open across Interior Health beginning March 15. (Canadian Press)
48 COVID-19 vaccine clinics to open across Interior Health

Select groups can book appointments starting Monday

Seniors in the Interior Health region can book their COVID-19 vaccinations starting Monday, March 8, 2021 at 7 a.m. (File photo)
Seniors in Interior Heath region can book COVID-19 shots starting Monday

Starting March 8 the vaccination call centre will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

Elvira D’Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
‘It’s been a good week’: Tam hopeful on vaccines as pandemic anniversary nears

Tam says the addition of two new vaccines will help Canadians get immunized faster

Const. Allan Young. Photo: Abbotsford Police Department
Manslaughter charge laid in Nelson death of Abbotsford police officer

Allan Young died after an incident in downtown Nelson last summer

Kelowna General Hospital (File photo)
One of two Kelowna General Hospital COVID-19 outbreaks declared over

One outbreak declared over after two deaths, seven cases; another outbreak remains ongoing in the hospital

Cottonwoods Care Home in Kelowna. (Google Maps)
COVID-19 outbreak declared at Kelowna care home after 12 cases noted

Two staff members and 10 residents at Cottonwoods Care Centre have tested positive for COVID-19

There is no true picture of how many youth in Penticton are experiencing housing instability or true homelessness. The Foundry and the city of Penticton are trying to find that out.
How many youth are experiencing homelessness in Penticton?

Foundry Penticton and the City have partnered on a youth survey open until March 13

Chelsea Ishizuka was borned and raised in Penticton but has now moved to Japan. When she found out there was a popular restaurant there named after Penticton, she had to go check it out. Here she is with the owner (right). (Facebook)
Popular restaurant in Japan named after city of Penticton

A Pentictonite now living in Tokyo discovered the eatery and the history behind its name

Coldstream’s Kalamalka Secondary has teamed up with Globox on a fundraising raffle for its graduating class of 2021. (Photo supplied)
Okanagan secondary school grads glowing over fundraiser

Kalamalka Secondary teams with company on fundraising raffle, replacing annual apple pie fundraiser

(The Canadian Press)
‘Worse than Sept. 11, SARS and financial crisis combined’: Tourism industry in crisis

Travel services saw the biggest drop in active businesses with 31 per cent fewer firms operating

Pictures and notes in from friends and classmates make up a memorial in support and memory of Aubrey Berry, 4, and her sister Chloe, 6, during a vigil held at Willows Beach in Oak Bay, B.C., on December 30, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Mother of slain daughters supports recent changes to Canada’s Divorce Act

Sarah Cotton-Elliott said she believed her children took a back seat to arranging equal parenting

Most Read