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John Ware Reclaimed, Alberta history caught up with a lasso

“He’s one of those famous people no one has ever heard of, especially outside of Alberta.” Presented at the Calgary International Film Festival from September 24 to October 4, the documentary John Ware reclaimed traces the life of this black cowboy from Western Canada.

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Rodeo champion Fred Whitfield as John Ware. Credit: Shaun Robinson / ONF

The lands of the North are harsh. In 1882, a convoy of cows from a Texas farm arrived in Alberta. On the way, the American cowboys are caught in a blizzard. They decide to abandon the cows to find refuge. John does not want to abandon the herd. He turns around.

At the end of the storm, the cowboys retrace their steps. Hundreds of dead cows lie on the expanses of snow-covered meadows. They hope to find the body of John Ware. They end up doing it. While alive, he warms his hands in front of a fire. Cows are around him, alive, too. “He was the fastest, the strongest, the best”, we hear in this documentary produced by theNational Film Board of Canada (NFB).

Freed from his condition of slave, the American flees the violence that his community still suffers in the southern United States. That’s why he decides to stay in Alberta. “John had heard good things about Canada and expected a better reception,” the documentary informs.

Cheryl Foggo examine une photographie de John Ware. Crédit photo  Courtoisie ONF
Cheryl Foggo examines a photograph of John Ware. Credit: Courtesy ONF

His cowboy talents, his strength, his courage, his values ​​as a dignified and upright man make him a respected man. He first worked for the famous Ranch-Bar U, before meeting his wife, Mildred, from a black pioneer family in Ontario. The couple have five children. The last Janett, nicknamed Nettie, will be the keeper of family history.

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Questioned realities

This feature film allows viewers to travel between the present and the past. Alberta director Cheryl Foggo puts herself on the stage to show the extent of her research around this black pioneer living in Alberta. “We should have known him, but you know that history is written by the winners and he was not in a position of advantage,” she says.

Cheryl Foggo explore les archives de John Ware en compagnie de Mary Mallory. Crédit photo  Courtoisie ONF
Cheryl Foggo explores the John Ware archives with Mary Mallory. Credit: Courtesy ONF

The director questions the known story. Accompanied by a team of archaeologists, she immersed herself in her life on the site of one of her former ranches in Millarville. Searching for John Ware’s American roots, she discovers that he is believed to be from Tennessee rather than North Carolina. She also puts into perspective the book written by Grant MacEwan in the 1960s, John Ware’s cow country.

This work is also that of Bertrand Bickersteth, francophone, teacher at Olds, who intervenes during this documentary. According to him, black history in Canada is embellished. “Canadians really like to think there were bad Americans and good Canadians,” he says. According to him, the story told of John Ware is one of the consideration of Canadians for black people, but the truth is that the cowboy found racism in his path and had to overcome it.

Cheryl Foggo en compagnie de Michelle Thrush. Crédit photo  Courtoisie ONF
Cheryl Foggo with Michelle Thrush. Credit: Courtesy ONF

Reconcile the present

“We called him ‘N. John Ware ”. We used this horrible racist word: Negro ”, says Bertrand Bickersteth full of emotions. During his lifetime, John Ware’s daughter Nettie had written that no one called him that way in front of him, “if it was, it was behind his back.”

Cheryl Foggo en compagnie de l’auteur et professeur Bertrand Bickersteth. Crédit photo  Courtoisie ONF
Cheryl Foggo with author and professor Bertrand Bickersteth. Credit: Courtesy ONF

“We don’t serve niggers here,” a bartender once replied to the cowboy asking to be served. John then allegedly punched the man behind the counter, which earned him a few days in jail, according to newspaper reports at the time.

“Yes, I compare myself to the life of John Ware,” says Bertrand Bickersteth, who grew up in Alberta. “Everyone told me that there is no racism in Canada. And when I met him, I was told that was not it, that I was too sensitive. John Ware experienced the same things ”.

Le champion de rodéo Fred Whitfield dans le rôle de John Ware. Crédit photo  Shaun Robinson   ONF
Rodeo champion Fred Whitfield as John Ware. Credit: Shaun Robinson / ONF

Learning about the life of John Ware changed his life. He says he enjoys a greater sense of belonging to Alberta thanks to this black cowboy. “At school, we were taught the history of Ukrainians, Aboriginal people, but nothing about black people. This film is very important because it tells the forgotten story, that of black people who came as pioneers in the 20th century and that of black cowboys ”.