Feb. 6, 2019

Documentary on Alberta's African-American settlers wins Governor General's History Award

Social Work professor David Este says film an important tool in capturing the history of black communities
David Este, professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary, says the documentary film project on Alberta's African-American settlers was one of the "most satisfying" projects he's been involved with in his 25-year career.

David Este says the film project on Alberta's African-American settlers was one of the best projects

University of Calgary

At a ceremony in Ottawa’s Rideau Hall last week, a collaborative documentary on Alberta’s African-American settlers was honoured by Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, in a special ceremony.

The Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Community Programming was awarded to We Are the Roots: Black Settlers and their Experiences of Discrimination on the Canadian Prairies, a collaborative documentary project that included Faculty of Social Work researcher Dr. David Este, PhD.

The hour-long documentary uses interviews with the children and descendants to preserve the history of African-American settlers who came to Alberta between 1905 and 1912. They came to escape growing systemic racism in the American territories, attracted by the promise of nearly free land. In the Governor General’s news release, the film is described as shining “a light on the settlers' struggles and successes — from the demanding land they fought to farm and the discrimination they faced, to forming the foundations of their communities: the churches, schools, and businesses, and the relationships that connected them.”

  • February is Black History Month in Canada. A special screening of We Are the Roots will be shown on Feb. 27, 2019, at the Morinville Community Cultural Centre

The documentary and research project was led by Deborah Dobbins, president of Edmonton’s Shiloh Centre for Multicultural Roots (SCMR), and created by filmmaker and oral historian Dr. Jenna Bailey, PhD, from the University of Lethbridge. Este, who also holds a master's in African Canadian history, was brought on board for his expertise on immigrant and refugee experiences in Canada.

“It's important from a social work perspective,” says Este. “When I look at Canadian social welfare history, it basically excludes Indigenous people and different racialized groups including people of African descent, Chinese descent, and other communities. So, in looking at how these African-Americans settled in Alberta and the mutual support that they provided each other, it’s a very, very important lesson for social work.”

The Governor General’s award, which “recognizes innovative projects that encourage communities to explore and share unique aspects of the past” is the fourth major award for the innovative project.  We Are The Roots was previously awarded the Heritage Awareness Award from the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation and two honours from the Oral History Association (OHA), North America’s most important oral history association. The film won OHA’s most prestigious award, the Elizabeth B. Mason Major Award, and the OHA’s award for Oral History in Non-Print Format.  

“I think it’s important. These African-American settlers contributed so much to the making of Albertan society,” says Este. “I’m so glad that through Deborah Dobbins' vision, support and enthusiasm, as well as working with my colleague Dr. Bailey, that we had the opportunity to engage in this project. I've been a social work professor for over a quarter of a century and been involved in many research projects but working with my two colleagues on this project has definitely been one of the most rewarding experiences I've had as a professor.”