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'Epic journey' of Alberta's Black pioneers celebrated with silver commemorative coin


An Alberta historian is hoping a new coin encourages Canadians to learn more about Western Canada's Black history.

The Royal Canadian Mint is paying homage to Alberta's Amber Valley, one of the oldest Black settlements in Western Canada.

"I hope people can appreciate the contributions that our people have made to this country, you know, and in particular out in that area," said historian Myrna Wisdom, a founding member of the Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Society.

Wisdom's grandfather was one of the first African American settlers who came to northern Alberta in 1910, looking to flee the segregationist laws and escalating violence of the Jim Crow era.

At the time, the Canadian government was offering free land under the Dominion Lands Act to anyone who wanted to help settle the west.

"That's when they sent up a few scouts," Wisdom said. "They didn't come here in the wintertime, obviously."

Wisdom said the families were true pioneers. They sold their land in the U.S., packed up their kids and their homes and rode the rails all the way to the end of the line in Edmonton.

"Then, to get to Amber Valley, they had to go by wagon," Wisdom said. "And in some cases, they had to blaze a trail as they went."

The climate was harsher than they expected, Wisdom said, but they endured.

Over time they cleared the land and learned to grow new crops suited to the Canadian prairies. They built up their homes and homesteads, and added a school and a post office.

At its peak, the town grew to 300 residents.

"Some of them served in the war," Wisdom added. "My parents, grandparents, they made a living out there in Amber Valley.

"And my maternal grandfather, he was the first Black man in Alberta to run a post office."

'We deserve recognition'

The Amber Valley $20 fine silver coin is the latest to be issued in the ongoing Commemorating Black History silver coin series.

Only 5,500 of the coins were minted, and one will cost you $105.

Graphic artist and coin designer Valentine De Landro said it was a challenge to fit the community's story onto a single coin.

"I wish I could have had more of a canvas to work with, because trying to distill such an epic journey of these people settling in Alberta, it seemed a little bit daunting," De Landro said.

He decided to focus on the start of the story: The intrepid people who uprooted everything to take a chance on a new life in northern Alberta.

The coin features a homesteader family arriving in Amber Valley, renamed from Pine Creek in 1931. Surrounding them is an outline of Alberta, a bough of maple leaves, a wagon train of settlers and the log cabins they built when they arrived.

De Landro said he's grateful to have had the opportunity to learn the story of what was once one of the largest all-Black settlements in Western Canada.

The Amber Valley silver commemorative coin honours one of Alberta's earliest all-Black settlements. (Photo: The Royal Canadian Mint)Alex Reeves, with the Royal Canadian Mint, said the commemorative coin is an opportunity to share that story with a broader audience.

"As you look into their experience, you know, you're kind of amazed at their perseverance, their determination, their willingness to really make a new start in Canada after escaping discrimination in the United States," Reeves said.

The coin launched in January. Before it was minted, Wisdom was asked to take a look and give it the Amber Valley stamp of approval.

It was a proud moment, she said, and she's happy to see her community and its history being recognized.

What she's unsure of, Wisdom said, is why it took so long.

"We've only been here 100 years," she said. "We are a part of the fabric from which this country has been built and I believe we deserve recognition for such.

"And I would really like to see this story incorporated into the school curriculum somehow."

For more information on the Amber Valley commemorative coin, visit the Royal Canadian Mint website here.

You can also visit the Amber Valley Museum at the Amber Valley Community Hall in Athabasca. More information on how to book a tour can be found here.

Amber Valley is located nearly 200 kilometres north of Edmonton and 25 kilometres east of Athabasca. 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Miriam Valdes-Carletti Top Stories

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