‘Where have we been? Where are we going?’: CBC Asks explores Black Prairie experience

Black experiences on the Prairies are deep, rich and longstanding. The history and present lives of Black people in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are an integral part of the Prairie experience. 

These are some of the messages that emerged from a recent CBC Asks event as part of the ongoing conversation ignited by CBC’s Black on the Prairies project. Black on the Prairies is a collection of journalistic articles, personal essays, images, audio stories. 

The theme of the CBC Asks event was, “Where have we been? Where are we going?”

It featured Gerri Sylvia, who appeared in the 1961 CBC Manitoba documentary Eye-To-Eye, which explored racism and social acceptance for Black people at the time. Sylvia said she was refused four job opportunities that year in Winnipeg because of the colour of her skin.

Sixty years later, Sylvia reflected on that time. 

“Things are good now, but they weren’t always that good. I don’t want my daughter, my granddaughter and the next generation of Black people to have some of the problems that I had,” the 89-year-old said.

WATCH: Gerri Sylvia looks back 60 years after appearing in CBC documentary Eye-To-Eye

A 1961 CBC Manitoba documentary Eye-To-Eye explored racism and discrimination in employment, housing, and overall social acceptance. One of the guests in that documentary was Gerri Sylvia. Black on the Prairies co-creator and project lead Ify Chiwetelu sat down with her recently, 60 years later, to take a look back. 5:07

Panelists reflected on Sylvia’s experience and talked about their relationships with the Prairies. 

“I love the Prairies. The people make a place. I know a lot of beautiful people on the Prairies that just make it such a beautiful place to be,” Métis Dominican community and regional planning student Kyla Pascal said. Pascal is originally from Alberta and currently lives in Vancouver.

“I am a Prairie kid. I love the Prairies. I love the Prairie sunset. I love the Prairie sunrise. It was a very beautiful experience growing up. I also experienced violent racism throughout my whole life,” Manitoban MLA Uzoma Asagwara added.

Saskatoon resident Lindiwe Mpofu asked panelists about Black and Indigenous relations on the Prairies.

Albertan writer and educator Bertrand Bickersteth mentioned that Black and Indigenous communities have had historical and familial ties.

“Because of all of these types of connections, we should feel confident that fighting against anti-Blackness racism can never be an end project unless we fight against anti-Indigenous racism as well,” he said.

It’s empowering to be able to talk about what it means to be Black here.– Uzoma Asagwara, Manitoban MLA

Panelists also shared their thoughts  about the future of being Black on the Prairies.

“On the Prairies, we’ve been scattered. We’ve not been allowed to feel as though there is a Black community. But, that is changing now,” Bickersteth said.  “If you have a voice, you must use it. That’s what brings change and that’s what excites me about the future of being Black on the Prairies”

WATCH: Panelists share what gives them hope for the future

As part of the Black on the Prairies launch, CBC Asks strived to create moments to celebrate this richness and explore the fullness of Black life on the Prairies. Co-creator and project lead Omayra Issa asks Bertrand Bickersteth, Kyla Pascal and Uzoma Asagwara what gives them hope about the next 60 years. 9:46

Pascal said she is excited about the acknowledgement that Black people have been on the Prairies for a long time and will continue to be so.

“We’re out here. It’s about being able to stand in our Blackness and not having to assimilate or change who we are, our vibes, our aesthetics to change,” Pascal said. 

“I want to see Black people everywhere.”

The Black on the Prairies project is supported by Being Black in Canada. For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians, check out Being Black in Canada here.