In search of Black folk in rural Saskatchewan

Shayna Jones

Shayna Jones started a project of collecting stories from Black people living in rural places a year ago, and now she’s collaborating with Heritage Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum to further her Black and Rural project.

Shayna Jones, a folklorist and performance storyteller from Kaslo, B.C., moved to the Kootenay mountains to escape big city life and provide her kids an opportunity to connect with the earth.

“We wanted to get out of the busy hustle and bustle to give our kids the opportunity to get to know the earth they’re living on, be close to the cycle of the seasons and appreciate viscerally that we are one of the many creatures on this earth,” Jones said.

She is grateful to be living close to mountains, lakes and being “immersed in the wilderness,” Jones said that the proximity to wilderness keeps her grounded.

But in a town of approximately 800 people, Jones found only three other Black individuals in or around Kaslo.

As a young mother, Jones said for her kids to see another Black person in the vicinity is “an anomaly compared to the ‘norm’ of their white surroundings.”

“One drawback to being so beautifully tucked away in the wild is that my children don’t have a deep sense of the diversity of humanity where we are,” she said.

Being the only Black woman for miles around, she felt lonely.

Jones took it as a way to dig inwardly to find her grounding as a woman of African descent through her own sense of research and discovery.

“That’s through folklore and performing arts as a storyteller. I read, I listen to music, I connect when I can to human beings of African descent,” she said.

This led to her teaming up with Heritage Saskatchewan for a special project where she would tease out the experience of Black individuals living in rural Saskatchewan.

“It’s actually a sub-project, a focus project of a national work that I’m doing, where I’m collecting interviews from Black, rural-dwelling Canadians across the country,” she said of the larger Black and Rural project, which is partially funded by the Canada Council for the Arts.

Shayna Jones

With Heritage Saskatchewan, Jones is diving into the history of Black rural presence in Saskatchewan — which dates as far back as the 1890s, when she said there was a robust African-American community in Maidstone and the surrounding area in Saskatchewan.

“Through this project, I am speaking to the descendants of that early community and also speaking to newly dwelling rural Black Canadians in Saskatchewan, mostly to understand how they are grounding into their sense of their heritage and ancestry,” Jones said.

She said the aim of the project is to ask questions of reflection to get a sense of what it feels to be Black in a rural setting and the ways in which individuals stay connected to their roots.

Through her Black and Rural work, as Jones calls it, she has often heard about the lack of a sense of Black community. She said such voices in Saskatchewan and beyond will open up rural spaces for people of colour, specifically Black, as places of belonging. 

There’s not a lot of room and what are we to do with a strong and robust Black community in a Prairie landscape where so many of the stories that we are told, the historical figures that we are given to revere, are most often white men,” she said.

She is hopeful that in her efforts to honour her heritage, her project will shift that “whitewashed narrative of Canada’s history” to make it more inclusive.

Jones will be partnering with a museum and a theatre company to create a theatrical performance of the stories that she would be gathering. With the museum, she will create a small physical gallery that will highlight the interviews and the artistic submissions from Black Canadians.

“The goal is by 2023 to tour the gallery and the performance together to key locations all across the country. I invite those who are interested in this story to stay connected with the Black and Rural [project] and to add their voice if they have a story to share,” Jones said.