During the 1850s — thanks to the Underground Railroad — about 60,000 Black people were living in Canadian provinces. In towns and on farms, newly free Black people were making decent lives for themselves. By contrast, their American cousins in the southern states were still enslaved.

The Black Canadian community was full of hope. But they had some worries, including how to get a good education for their children.

Black parents believed strongly that their children deserved good schools. But many schools in Canada didn't want Black students, or forced them to sit at the back of the classroom. After the American Civil War, this problem became an important reason why many Black people returned to the United States.

Segregated vs. Integrated Schools

In 1850, the Common Schools Act was passed in Canada West. This law allowed separate schools for Black and White children. A few years later, a similar law was passed in Nova Scotia. All-Black schools were built, but they had little money. Often the buildings were second-rate and the teachers poorly paid.

Many Black students failed to learn in these segregated schools. Integrated schools such as Buxton School and Mary Ann Shadd's school, where Black and White children studied together, worked better. Toronto also had integrated schools. Many Black graduates from these schools went on to university and had successful careers.

Civil War!

Black Canadians were distracted from their problems when the Civil War broke out in the United States in 1861. The abolition of slavery was a major goal of many of those fighting on the side of the anti-slavery states of the north against the pro-slavery states of the south. At first, Black Americans weren't allowed to fight. But Frederick Douglass, a famous

Quick Facts

The American Civil War

* The Civil War began in 1861 and ended in 1865.

* The war was fought between the northern (Union) states and the southern (Confederate) states.

* The Confederacy, backed by slave-owning plantation farmers, wanted to be an independent country.

* In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves.

* In 1865, the Union won the war, and the end of slavery was confirmed.

Black abolitionist, got that changed. Black Canadians wanted to fight against slavery, too. Josiah Henson, Mary Ann Shadd and Harriet Tubman returned to the United States to recruit Black soldiers. Thousands of Black Canadians joined the Union army of the northern states, and many died.

In 1857, Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott became the first Black graduate of Toronto's Medical College. He served as a surgeon for the Union army during the Civil War, then returned to Canada.

After the Civil War

The Civil War ended with the northern side winning. Across the American South, homes, schools, farms and train tracks were destroyed. Newly freed slaves — 14 million of them — needed schooling and work. During a period called the Reconstruction, the American government tried to rebuild and find ways for Black and White people to live together in a non-slave society.

The Reconstruction Act of 1867 stated that "all persons born in the United States are citizens and have equal rights, and that all male citizens have the right to vote, regardless of race, color, or having been a slave."

An organization called the Freedmen's Bureau set up hospitals and public schools for Black people across the southern states. In addition, African Americans were given the right to buy land and enter politics.

The News Reaches Canada

After the Civil War, Canadian newspapers reported that slavery-had ended in the United States.

When Black Canadians learned that many improvements were being made to benefit former slaves, it made them think. Should they stay in Canada or go back to the United States? They also learned that well-funded public schools were being set up in the South and began to feel that their children might have better lives there.

Goodbye, Canada

The pull to return to the United States was strong. In Canada, Black people were having a hard time finding good jobs. Many wanted to reunite with family and friends back home. White Canadians did little to stop them from leaving. Some felt that Black people should return home, and others wanted to stop any more Black refugees from coming to Canada.

For one reason or another, over the next 30 years about two-thirds of the Black people in Canada returned to the United States, hoping for a better life. Canada's Black population declined from 60, 000 to 18, 000.


In 1867, the Dominion of Canada was created when Canada East (Quebec), Canada West (Ontario), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia joined together. The Canadian government quickly realized that the country would be much stronger if it was bigger. But how should it expand?

The government soon began to look west. It saw buffalo herds still roaming on endless grassland stretching west to the mountains. The Cree and other Native peoples were living on the land and hunting for game. But the government wanted pioneers to settle down and farm the land instead. It also planned to push the Canadian Pacific Railway all the way west. Only then could Canada expand from coast to coast.

"The Last Best West"

In the 1890s, Canada began to advertise cheap land in the Prairies to attract settlers from Europe and the United States. Among those tempted to take up this offer were African Americans living in the midwestern states.


To Black people who weren't firmly settled by 1905, Canadian railway and government posters looked very attractive. They had headlines such as "The Last Best West," and they advertised land at $2 per 0.4 ha (1 acre) in Saskatchewan — the price in the neighbouring state of North Dakota was $50.



John Ware was born enslaved in the United States, but he was freed at the end of the Civil War. He became a cowboy in Texas, then moved to Alberta in 1882.

Tall and powerful, Ware knew all about handling horses and throwing a lasso. He became a famous rodeo cowboy who could wrestle a steer to the ground. One story tells how he rode over a cliff into a river while trying to tame a bucking horse. The spectators were amazed when Ware and the horse came up alive, with Ware still in the saddle!

John Ware married Mildred Lewis after he came to Canada, and together they raised five children and ran a successful ranch. Ware died in 1905, when his horse stumbled in a hole, fell and crashed him. Today you can visit the John Ware Historic Cabin in Dinosaur Provincial Park near Calgary, Alberta.

Black Pioneers

Between 1905 and 1909, many hundreds of Black Americans journeyed north from their homes to the Canadian Prairies. Most travelled by train and arrived at small border towns in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Some of the immigrants chose to make their homes in those provinces.

But the majority of Black Americans journeyed west to Alberta. Some went to booming cities such as Edmonton. Others decided to live in rural areas as cowboys or homesteaders.


When the Black pioneers arrived in the Prairies, they found land covered with trees and underbrush. It took weeks to clear the land, especially because they often had to work without horses or oxen. A pioneer's first house was usually a log cabin with a sod (grass and earth) roof. Neighbours — whether Black or White — helped one another build their homes. The pioneers planted large gardens and hunted for fresh meat such as deer, duck, pheasant and rabbit.

Working in Winter Weather

Some Black homesteaders took on extra work during the winter. They hauled heavy loads by sleigh to northern settlements such as Fort McMurray Alberta, where the railroad didn't reach. There were no inns where the men could sleep. To keep warm at night, they'd scoop out snow from a snowbank, lay down spruce boughs to make a sleeping mat, then pile more snow over their blankets.

A few years later, when the Canadian government wanted to restrict Black immigration, it made ridiculous claims, including that Black people weren't suited to Canada's cold climate. Brave Black homesteaders had already proved how wrong that was!

How did Black settlers from southern climates manage to survive in the frozen north? Take a look at life in a small community north of Edmonton, Alberta. In the early 1900s, Amber Valley was the largest rural Black settlement in western Canada.

One of its first settlers, Martha Edwards, lived with her husband, Jeff, in her father's log cabin. There was no bathtub or toilet. The wind howled through cracks in the walls. But Martha says they made do by stuffing the cracks with rags and loading up on warm bedding and firewood. For Christmas, the family ate prairie chicken (grouse) and moose meat, instead of turkey.

These Black settlers learned how to survive in Canada's cold climate very well. The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of hardy pioneer families such as the Edwards still live in the Amber Valley area.

By the 1880s, the promise of a good life for freed slaves in the United States was over. In the South, violent anti-Black groups such as the Ku Klux Klan had formed, and new laws forced the segregation of Black and White people.

Fifty thousand Black Americans escaped by heading west to new states such as Oklahoma.

Most were poor farm labourers — known as Exodusters — who went to take up offers of free land. Many Exodusters did well in Oklahoma, creating large cattle ranches. But some farmers were hit by drought and floods, and others found that land was becoming too expensive. They began to think about moving north to Canada.

Discouragement from Canada

Faced with protests from White Canadians, Prime Minister Laurier decided he had to discourage the Exodusters from coming to Canada.

One government scheme sent Dr. G.W. Miller, a Black doctor from Chicago, to hold meetings in Oklahoma, Kansas and other western states. In his speeches, Dr. Miller tried to convince hopeful farmers that they would perish in Canada's waist-high snows. The ground was frozen year-round, he said, so they wouldn't be able to farm it.

The government also instructed officials at the border to make Black Americans answer tough questions about their health and character. The idea was that they would fail the test and be sent back home.

Trouble in Oklahoma

By 1910, things were getting worse for the Exodusters in Oklahoma. The state had passed segregation laws like the ones in the southern states. More and more Black families looked towards Canada as a refuge from prejudice and violence.

A group of Black people travelled to the Canadian Prairies to investigate. One of them was Henry Sneed, a former Texan, who liked what he saw. When he returned to Oklahoma, Sneed helped to organize a large group of Exodusters who had decided to emigrate to Canada. Knowing Canada's record, they were sure they would be welcomed.

Protests from White Canadians

Up until 1911, under Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada had actively recruited Black settlers to the Prairies. Now, anti-Black prejudice was starting to build. Newspapers ran stories about problems that sprang up when large numbers of Black people moved to northern American cities. But the papers didn't report on Black people's success stories.

When White Canadians heard rumours that a large group of Exodusters was planning to come north, many called for an end to Black immigration.

Canada, Here We Come!

The Exodusters had faced discouragement before and won. Encouraged by Henry Sneed's report on Canada, a group of about 190 Black people from Oklahoma and Kansas made the trek north in 1911. They filled nine railway cars with horses and farming tools.

At the Canadian border, officials tried to stump the Exodusters with health and citizenship tests. But because the group had money, property and good health, they passed easily. They went on to establish communities from western Alberta to Thunder Bay, Ontario. Between 1909 and 1911, about 1,500 Exodusters emigrated from Oklahoma to the Canadian Prairies.


Official Notice Given by Dominion to United States Consul 

The Action of Dominion

Leading to Conference in Washington

Washington, D.C. April 26.--The plans of the Dominion  of Canada to adopt restrictions against the entering of their country by American negroes was the subject of a  conference  today between Assistant Secretary of State Wilson and John K. Jones, consul general of the US at Winnipeg. Mr. Jones    presented a recommendation from the Canadian immigration authorities indicating that the American negro may be barred on the ground that he could not become adapted to the rigorous northern climate and consequently might become a public charge. 

Such the name "Exodusters" comes from the book of Exodus in the Bible, which tells the story of the Israelites' flight from slavery in Egypt. "Exodus" means the departure of a large group of people, and "dusters" refers to the dry soil of Oklahoma.

Stopping Black Immigration

Still worried by western protests, Laurier's government decided to stop Black immigration for one year — from 1911 to 1912. It passed a regulation stating that Black people were "unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada."

Although the regulation never became law, Black people got the message that they were no longer welcome in Canada. In fact, Black immigration to Canada came to a standstill from 1912 until the 1950s.



Mattie Mayes was a successful Oklahoman immigrant. In 1910, when she was 60 years old, she and her husband, Joe, travelled by train to Canada with 13 children and grandchildren and 10 other families.

The group chose to homestead in Eldon, not far from North Battleford, Saskatchewan. After 10 years of their hard work, Mattie's farm was doing well. The community built a Baptist church, and Joe became the first preacher. A few years later, they built a school. Mattie was a warm and caring leader in the community until she died in 1953 at age 103. Her descendents include Reuben Mayes, the great NFL football player, and Lesa Stringer, who's been a member of Canada's national women's bobsleigh team.



Keith Hunt