John Ware, a Black cowboy who lived in Southern Alberta was an enigma. That is until writer-director Cheryl Foggo introduced him to audiences — first in the play John Ware Reimagined and then in the 2020 National Film Board release of John Ware Reclaimed.
Little is known about this larger-than-life cowboy’s early life. It is believed he was an enslaved American who moved to Canada in the late 1880s to start a new life. Ware was a successful rancher who helped pioneer Alberta’s ranching industry and lived up to his role as a loving husband and father to a brood of five children.
In recognition of Black History Month, the St. Albert Public Library in partnership with Africans & African Descendants Friendship Club (AADFC) is hosting a National Film Board screening of John Ware Reclaimed on Friday, Feb. 9.
Foggo, who spent five years writing and directing John Ware Reclaimed describes the cowboy as complex.
“He was funny, very smart and very savvy about ranching and animals. He loved to dance. He was the most amazing man. Despite the challenges he faced, he took the bull by the horns. He was determined to live life fully and on his own terms.”
The only known books about Ware are recorded in, John Ware’s Cow Country, written by Grant MacEwan and published in 1960. Since the book was written by a white man from 60 years ago, it delivers a biased slant and waters down the racism many Blacks experienced at that time.
While MacEwan’s narrative minimizes racism, Foggo’s extensive research reveals how damaging the racial encounters were on people. In addition, archivists and historians were unable to corroborate certain chunks of information presented in the book.
“I don’t want people to think I’m not grateful to Grant MacEwan. I feel grateful he wrote about John Ware. John Ware may have been forgotten if it wasn’t for him,” Foggo said. However, it was time to update many facts swept under the rug through the passage of time.
Introducing Ware to the world has been a passion project nearly two decades in the making. To get a sense of the man, the Calgary writer chatted with people who knew him. She also read people’s diaries, journals and newspaper articles, and even explored genealogical work and DNA.
“I worked with every single tool I could find.”
From the original film pitch, Foggo shared anecdotes of people connected to Ware and his wife Mildred. Even country singer-songwriter Corb Lund, whose great-grandfather was Ware’s neighbour, is interviewed.
Through her documentary, Foggo wants viewers to realize John Ware was not a lone Black cowboy. There were entire Black communities across Alberta that formed a diaspora searching for a home to rebuild their lives.
“I hope the people get a sense of how loving Black communities are, and what a loving family man he was, and how what he was connected to the Black community.”
The documentary is about 75 minutes long. Following it is a Q&A with Toni Harrison, a member of AADFC.
Harrison added, “This documentary is about how anti-racism is actively challenging racist history. We all have to confront how past legacies of discrimination feed into racism today."
The free screening starts at 7 p.m. Register in advance at sapl.ca.