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Deemed Unsuitable: The Search for Equality in Canada’s Prairie Provinces by Blacks from Oklahoma

by R. Bruce Shepard

Many Canadians feel extreme pride about their country’s role in the operation of the Underground Railroad. But Saskatchewan historian R. Bruce Shepard suggests that the much revered virtue of Canadian tolerance has been mostly a sham – one Shepard does his best to explode in Deemed Unsuitable.

This concise account tells of the hundreds of blacks from Oklahoma who attempted to build a new life for themselves on the Canadian Prairies in the early decades of this century. As a white academic, Shepard feels the need to justify his foray into what many consider “black issues.” But Shepard insists that white racism constitutes a perfectly legitimate course of study for a white man interested in exploring the racism that comprises part of his heritage. Indeed, where most similar discussions focus on black experience as an anomaly, Shepard writes of pervasive, durable white racism as the social pathology.

His chronicle begins in the years following manumission, when Southern whites stepped up their campaign of brutality against African Americans. Thousands of newly freed blacks, desperate to flee, headed to the new Indian Territory, the area that would soon become the state of Oklahoma. Unfortunately, a simultaneous influx of white settlers meant that blacks ended up facing the same violence and restrictions they had hoped to leave behind. Shepard’s chronicle offers a rare and excellent analysis of the three-way tensions between the region’s native, black, and white settlers. When Oklahoma’s white politicians adopted a nefarious piece of legislation that left blacks virtually disenfranchised, many African American families looked north to the Canadian plains.

Blacks comprised only a small portion (1,000–1,500) of the total number of Americans who migrated to Canada in the early 20th century. White Canadians proved less confrontational and more law abiding than their American counterparts, yet they expressed the same revulsion at the idea of co-existing with black people. Shepard documents many specific instances of Canadian racism, but it is his careful discussion of the Laurier government’s measures to halt black immigration that truly surprises. Shepard shows the way in which racism engendered political, social, and moral corruption.

Though Shepard does not always provide enough information to support each point, he clearly proves that Canada possessed its own virulent strain of racism. Deemed Unsuitable allows for a more realistic appraisal of Canada’s “glorious abolitionist past.”