By Jesse Robitaille
Canada Post is set to release tomorrow the 13th issue of its annual Black History Month series, honouring the historic settlements of Willow Grove, N.B., and Amber Valley, Alta.
Part of the second release of the 2021 stamp program, the issue pays tribute to the Black settlers who fled the United States in the early years of the 1800s and 1900s, escaping prejudice, discrimination and enslavement. It’s an “homage to Black settlers who overcame substantial hardships to forge a future for their families in two communities 100 years and thousands of kilometres apart,” according to Jim Phillips, the director of stamp services for Canada Post.
For some residents of Willow Grove, the honour is a long time coming.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Ralph Thomas, a descendent of the community’s original residents, told CBC News late last year after Canada Post announced the subjects for this year’s stamp program.
“We have gone down through the years without being recognized with some of our great folks that came to these parts and went through a very tough time to get started in life.”
The largest influx of Black refugees into Canada came during the War of 1812, when thousands of people fled enslavement and settled in the Maritime colonies, including New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. They were among the upwards of 30,000 black refugees who found freedom in Canada during the U.S. antebellum period (from about 20 years after the United States’ formation in 1776 until the start of the American Civil War in 1861).
“During the British occupation of the Chesapeake Bay area in the War of 1812, the British military offered freedom to any slave who fled his American master,” according to an online University of New Brunswick article, referencing an 1814 proclamation by Sir Alexander Cochrane, then commander of the Royal Navy in North America.
“All those who may be disposed to emigrate from the United States will, with their families, be received on board of His Majesty’s ships or vessels of war, or at the military posts that may be established, upon or near the coast of the United States. They will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty’s sea or land forces, or of being sent as free settlers, to the British possessions in North America or the West Indies, where they will meet with all due encouragement.”
About 370 Black refugees accepted the offer to settle in British North America, fleeing slavery in Virginia and Maryland before arriving in Saint John Harbour on the HMS Regulus on May 25, 1815.
“After considerable delay and hardship, these refugees were eventually given land at Willow Grove,” according to the University of New Brunswick article.
The deal proved sour, however, as Black settlers faced local racism and received smaller plots than their white counterparts (50 acres were given to Black families, compared to 100 for whites). Black settlers were also forced to pay for all surveys and licences for three years.
In 1825, 10 years after arriving in the area, the remaining refugees living on the land were given 99-year leases. It wasn’t until 1836 when the government offered the refugees land titles in Willow Grove.
AMBER VALLEY, ALBERTA
Nearly a century after Willow Grove was founded, 30 Black families fled escalating violence and segregation laws in the southern United States to establish Amber Valley, Alta.
The community is just east of Athabasca and about 170 kilometres north of Edmonton.
“They faced many of the same challenges as Willow Grove,” according to a statement issued by Canada Post, which added settlers encountered “bone-chilling winters, inhospitable land and the racial discrimination they had hoped to leave behind.”
“Through perseverance and hard work, both communities overcame many obstacles. They actively challenged racial discrimination and built schools, churches and other community organizations.”
About 1,000 African-American men, women and children came to what was originally known as Pine Creek between 1909 and 1911. Despite harsh conditions and racial hostility, the community – renamed Amber Valley in 1931 – thrived for several decades before its population dwindled.
“Although their populations eventually declined as subsequent generations pursued education and employment elsewhere, there is no doubt that these Black settlers and their descendants have enriched Canada’s economic and social fabric,” added the Canada Post statement.
A 2017 documentary, Secret Alberta: The Former Life of Amber Valley, details the area’s history.
Toronto artist Rick Jacobson – the man who painted the trillium on Ontario’s driver’s license – illustrated the 2021 Black History Month stamps.
The images are based on archival photos of community members, local maps and images of the seafaring ship and covered wagons that carried the settlers to their new homes.
The stamps, each measuring 40 millimetres by 32 millimetres (horizontal), are available in 10-stamp booklets, 130,000 of which were printed by Lowe-Martin using four-colour lithography and Tullis Russell paper.
Two official first-day covers (OFDC) – one for each stamp – were also printed and serviced with pictorial cancels by Lowe-Martin. The Amber Valley cancel is from Athabasca, about 24 kilometres west of the historic settlement, and features a wagon wheel. The Willow Grove cancel is from Saint John, N.B., and depicts a church in the former settlement. Both OFDCs measure 190 millimetres by 112 millimetres.
Lara Minja, of Lime Design, designed the issue.
On Dec. 5, 1995, Canada’s MPs unanimously carried a motion to declare February as Black History Month across the country. Canada’s first Black History Month began two months later on Feb. 1, 1996.
STAMP PROGRAM CONTINUES FEB. 16
Canada Post’s next issue – the only slated for February – is due on Feb. 16.
The five-stamp set will feature snow mammals.