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'John Ware Reclaimed' is empowering and uplifting

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Director Cheryl Foggo and rodeo champion Fred Whitfield as John Ware. Image: Shaun Robinson, used with permission

Is it possible to love someone who died before you were born? Cheryl Foggo proves it is in her brilliantly conceived documentary, John Ware Reclaimed. Author, playwright and filmmaker Foggo has been on a quest for quite some time to uncover the rich and complex story of John Ware, the iconic and larger-than-life Black cowboy who came to Southern Alberta in 1882 on the first major cattle drive from Texas.

Born into slavery in the southern United States, Ware, an accomplished cow hand, eventually made his way to Alberta where he established himself as a successful rancher, loving family man and influential member of the community.

As Foggo researches the many truths of Ware's life, she uncovers superficial myths, mistellings and systemic racism which very much parallel her own family's experiences in Bowness, Alberta, where she grew up in the 1950s and 1960s.

One of five children, Foggo's father was a mailman and her mother a homemaker. Her own family were descendants of the Black migration of the early-20th century when African Americans fled hatred and racism in the southern U.S. But Canada was not exactly the welcoming haven it was made out to be.

Cheryl and her brother Richard fell in love with the cowboy life, attending the Calgary Stampede every summer and watching Western movies and television shows. It soon became clear, however, that there was no space for Black women and men in either mainstream or historical cowboy life, despite the fact Black cowboys were ubiquitous.

Ware's contemporaries, included not only Nat Love, Bass Reeves, Bill Pickett, Jesse Stahl, Lige Abel, Tom Rengal, Pete Smith, Tom Robinson, Green Walters, Jim Whitford and Billy Welsh, but also Foggo's own family.

It wasn't until Richard discovered a picture of Ware at the Glenbow Museum that Foggo began her journey which has spanned decades and includes her play, John Ware Reimagined, created for the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede in 2012.

Ware's wife, Mildred, was from a successful Black Toronto family that moved to Alberta in 1889. The Wares' marriage was so significant it was announced in the Calgary Tribune newspaper on March 2, 1892. The match was ideal for many reasons including the fact Mildred could read, write and keep a ledger while John was charming, stubborn, and a seasoned rancher.

They had six children, five of whom lived to adulthood. Mildred Jr., known as Nettie, became a writer, was the family story keeper and a prominent member of the Kirkcaldy community in Alberta. And, this is important, because in the early 2000s, Foggo connects with the Mallory family who Nettie entrusted with the family's archives.

Among Nettie's boxes Foggo found photos of her own uncle, Reverend Andrew Risby, standing beside Nettie Ware. Foggo also found written records tying pieces of her own history to that of the Ware family.

Foggo speaks with author, poet and professor Bertrand Bickersteth who also grew up in Alberta, but had never heard of Ware. In the documentary Bickersteth says, "Everyone talked about Canada as the place where there was no racism and the United States was the horrible place and thank goodness you were living here because if you lived in the United States you would encounter racism." Both Bickersteth and Foggo go on to detail their racist encounters growing up and the confusion caused by the "no racism here" narrative they had been fed.

Foggo describes finding Ware as, "Opening the door to finding the truth about Black history which can be very painful at times." Foggo and her brother used to dread going to Calgary as much as Ware did. For Foggo it was going to unfamiliar neighbourhoods, for Richard it was new hockey rinks, and for Ware it was the shops and hotels of Calgary.

Because Ware was so successful, it was assumed he didn't face racism. Author Lawrence Hill reads a passage about Ware's treatement by the bar keep at the local hotel which drives home the truth about the racism Ware faced more than 100 years ago and that Black people still endure today. Hill's father, Daniel Hill senior, also wrote about Ware's life.

Foggo articulates, "When Canadians of African descent share our historical narratives we're faced with a toxic choice, do we call it the 'N' word or do we force ourselves to speak aloud a word that conjures death?" In fact, Ware's own children had to work tirelessly to have that racial slur removed from the historical landmarks named for their father.

Richard and Foggo also share their experiences with racism and racial slurs -- again, very reminiscent of Ware's life. Foggo sees, "The denial of racism is very much connected to the erasure of Black history. Many Canadians still believe that every Black person they see is a recent arrival. Canadians know a few pockets of Black history like the underground railroad, but don't learn about the history of slavery in this country or the segregation and racism of Blacks who arrived during that window. So, denial of racism and erasure stand hand in hand as two good examples of anti-Blackness."

For complicated reasons the Ware family moved from their original homestead to Duchess, Alberta in 1902, and that's when things started to sour. The kids weren't happy; Mildred felt cut off from the world; their home was lost in a flood; and their youngest son, Daniel died.

By March of 1905, Mildred had died followed by Ware that September. The children went to live with their maternal grandparents in Calgary.

Interspersed throughout the documentary are monologues taken directly from the words of people who knew John Ware in his lifetime. They are quotes from letters, newspaper articles, memoirs or interviews.

Foggo made sure:

"The performers delivering those monologues are individuals who have been connected in some way to my exploration of Canada's Black history or John Ware's story specifically. Every song has a specific connection, and each live performer has a specific connection. And in almost every case, the anecdotes were filmed in the location where the action described in the monologue took place."

Foggo's archival, genealogical and archeological research, and her creative reimagining of John Ware's life and family, show who he might have been, how he might have lived, and what his legacy means for a version of Canada that often denies its history of anti-Black racism.

For Foggo, "John Ware shatters so many incorrect notions of who Black people are and were historically. It's empowering, uplifting and interesting for young Black Canadians to know the variety of their history and John Ware is empowering and uplifting."

John Ware Reclaimed (2020) is 71 minutes long. It will screen at the Calgary International Film Festival at the Eau claire 1 on Thursday, September 24 at 6 p.m. and October 4 at the Globe Cinema at 12 p.m. Both screenings are sold out. It will also be available to stream beginning September 24 at midnight. Visit ciffcalgary.ca. The documentary has its next screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and will be available for streaming in B.C., before moving across the country.

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

Image: Photo by Shaun Robinson, used with permission.

Editor's note, September 24, 2020: A previous version of this story misspelled Bertrand Bickersteth​'s last name. He is Bertrand Bickersteth​, not Bickerseth.

Editor's note, September 25, 2020: A previous version of this story misspelled the name Kirkcaldy. It is Kirkcaldy, not Kirkacaldy​.

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