An award-winning documentary about Alberta cowboy John Ware is being released online in time for Black History Month in February and will be available free of charge to Canadians.
Ware was born into slavery in the American South. He drove cattle into what would become Alberta in 1882, and found work at the Bar U and Quorn ranches. Ware developed a reputation as a top-notch horseman, and he and his wife Mildred established their own ranch in southern Alberta.
“He was also a very successful rancher, especially given that he couldn’t read or write. He was very good at the business side of it, from what I can gather,” said Cheryl Foggo, the writer and filmmaker behind the documentary John Ware Reclaimed, in an interview last year. Foggo’s film debuted at the Calgary International Film Festival last fall and took home the Audience Choice award for Best Alberta Feature.
The Wares initially settled near Millarville, but eventually relocated to the Duchess area as their ranch expanded. While the stories of most of Ware’s Black contemporaries have been lost, Ware’s legacy is comparatively well-known, at least within Alberta, as many institutions and landmarks bear his name, and as Grant MacEwan wrote a biography on him.
But gaps, misperceptions and inaccuracies have persisted in that narrative. Foggo says that researching African American history in North America is challenging, as the names of people enslaved in the U.S. weren’t recorded until the 1870 Census. Foggo’s film also addresses the racism the Ware family faced and that lingered in how Ware was portrayed after his death.
Contrasting that racism are the friend- ships John and Mildred Ware developed with many ranching neighbours. Evidence of those friendships persists decades later and came into play when Foggo was researching and shooting the film. For example, the Wares have no living descendants, but the Mallory family has kept their family archives. Descendants of the Fishers near Millarville and the Douglas family near Brooks now manage the land where the Wares ranched, and granted access to filmmakers.
“It’s those connections of love and community and neighbourliness that were established by John and Mildred Ware, and then by their children, that have carried on through the generations,” said Foggo.
John Ware Reclaimed will be available for streaming on February 8 at nfb.ca.