This article was written by Sorcha DeHeer
We Are The Roots: Black settlers and their experiences of discrimination on the Canadian Prairies
So this isn’t technically a book, but I think it is worth mentioning. I also thought it deserved more acclaim than it would get at the bottom of the history column’s “further reading” section (not that anything there isn’t also worth checking out). One of Canada’s most pervasive national myths is that it was a bastion of freedom and hope for Black people fleeing enslavement in America. We Are The Roots dispels this myth and exposes the racism and discrimination that Black settlers faced on the prairies. In an attempt to settle the land between 1897 and 1912, the Canadian government offered 160 acres of land for a $10 fee (somewhere between $230 and $270 today). Similar offers have been disseminated throughout Canada’s history, and they have always been steeped in racism. The government wanted to create the ideal society, which meant that immigration from certain countries was heavily frowned upon if not outright banned. The only people who were truly accepted, by the government and by the neighbours, were western and northern Europeans.
The film was produced by Dr. Jenna Bailey and Dr. David Este in collaboration with Jeff Allen Productions, documentary film production company Bailey and Soda Films and Edmonton’s Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots. The film was made possible largely through the collection of oral histories, showing how important oral history is for communities that have traditionally been left out of the historical record. By using oral history, the documentary prioritizes the lived experiences of Black settlers and their descendants. In a media review, Anna F. Kaplan speaks to the importance of this practice: “This decision highlighted the descendants as the experts of their own history.”
The film shows the diversity of Black experiences in the prairies rather than painting their lives with the same brush. It ends with the question “what can be done to end discrimination”. Far from being the kind of film, you watch and then forget about, We Are The Roots engages viewers by reminding them that there is still a responsibility here and the work is not done. Racism, discrimination and colonialization are the legacies that all Canadians, new and old, are responsible for. They come part and parcel with the privileges and benefits of being Canadian.