By Dale Woodard on January 20, 2021.
It started as an oral history project and turned into full documentary.
Thanks to the collaboration of five professors, Black History On The Prairies as part of The University of Lethbridge Anti-Racism Film Series took shape.
In a Zoom conference Tuesday afternoon, Jenna Bailey – an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Lethbridge as well as a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Oral History and Tradition – joined fellow acclaimed scholars Deborah Dobbins,David Este, and Karina Vernon as well as moderator Monetta Bailey, to discuss the documentary and to emphasize the importance of black history.
“Originally I got involved because Deborah approached me and asked me if I’d want to be involved. It sounded like a great project, so I jumped on it,” said Bailey, an award-winning author, oral historian and documentary filmmaker.
“When this project got started and Deborah initially approached me, we had no plans for a documentary. The plan was to do an oral history project, which was why I was involved. We interviewed 19 people for the documentary and did about two-hour long interviews with them.”
Bailey said those interviews will be eventually donated to the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
“That was a really big output of the project, because it’ll be used for the future and kept for other projects.”
Dobbins – a cultural and special education consultant and third generation African American Albertan whose parents were born and raised in Wildwood – noted the importance of black history in helping to develop the province being shared with the world.
“One way to do that was to do a project to ensure our people aren’t forgotten,” she said.
“Back in 2016 I was able to connect with Dr. Este and Dr. Bailey and that’s how the project began, funded and supported by the Alberta Human Rights Commision. We worked together as a team and the intangbles in our project was the documentary.”
Este is a Professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary.
In 2018, he was lead editor of the volume entitled “Racism and Anti-Racism in Canada” and is an editor of “Africentric Social Work” that will be released later this year.
“I always had an interest in social work, so I decided to switch into social work at the University of Toronto and subsequently got my PH.D at Wilfred Laurier,” he said, adding he chatted on the phone with Bailey and Dobbins and finally met them in October of 2016 to discuss the documentary project.
“They got me hooked.”
Vernon – an Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough where she researches and teaches in the areas of Canadian and Black Canadian literature, Black aesthetics, archives, critical pedagogy and Black-Indigenous solidarities – arrived in Alberta in 1981 from Honduras.
“I arrived in Calgary as an eight-year-old and then we moved from Calgary to Olds and that’s where I spent most of my formative years,” she said. “It was a hard to place to be mixed-race, black teenager. There wasn’t anything in my environment or my school cirriculum or in public conversations in any way that would let me know there had been previous waves of black migration to the prairies.”
Vernon’s family moved to Africa, but she returned to Canada for university.
“There were no courses on African/Canadian literature or history at the instiutions I went to,” said Vernon, the editor of The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology and a companion volume, Critical Readings in the Black Prairie Archives, which is forthcoming.
“So much so, that when I embarked on my doctoral work I actually intended to work on African/American literature.”
In the hour long session, the guests speakers engaged with others on the Zoom call in a question-and-answer segment spanning a variety of topics.
Bailey, an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Behavioural Science Department at Ambrose University in Calgary, said a second documentary is in the works that will go into the school system.
“There just seems to be a demand and an interest for it. So I’m really hoping we’re going to reach people and teach people about this important history they don’t know about.”
“I think if the general population just takes a moment and views it, they will have a great appreciation for all people,” added Dobbins of the documentary. “It wasn’t just one certain group of people that developed the prairies. It took many people, including the indigenous people that welcomed us to help them further develop the prairies. I think this documentary is a catalyst, we’ve been here for over 100 years and the conversation to recognize we matter as part of the history.”
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