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This community project is unearthing nuggets of Edmonton’s Black history

Black History Month is wrapping up soon but there’s no end to the gems being unearthed as part of the Jasper Place Community History Project in west Edmonton.

“It speaks to my being, it speaks to my community and people wanting to see themselves in the history of Canada,” says Donna Coombs-Montrose, who has always had an interest in history.

She and other community contributors are part of a project that is collecting stories from the community and sharing oral histories, videos and photos on a public website.

The work started in 2020 with funding from the City of Edmonton and the Alberta government.

The website features dozens of stories from the diverse mix of people from different cultural backgrounds who have made Jasper Place their home. Theme pages highlight the Black, Ukrainian, Filipino, South Asian, Jewish and First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities.

Smiling young people in matching patterned clothes.
Donna Coombs-Montrose, in glasses, with friends at Toronto’s Caribana Parade in 1970. (Submitted by Donna Coombs-Montrose)

Jasper Place was a town before residents voted in favour of amalgamation with Edmonton in 1964. The community includes several neighbourhoods near Stony Plain Road between 149th Street and 170th Street.

Originally from the Caribbean, Coombs-Montrose moved to Canada in the 1960s to pursue her dream of studying library sciences.

Her February calendar is always dotted with speaking engagements at local schools for Black History Month, where she showcases stories of Black people in Jasper Place.

The Jasper Place history project tells the stories of people like Shirley Romany, a hairdresser who moved to the area in the 1960s and supported other local Black-owned businesses, and Eritrea-born Goitom “Tom” Fessahye.

Fessahye came to Edmonton as a refugee from Sudan in the 1980s and operated a coin laundry on Stony Plain Road for more than 20 years.

The site also touches on the story of CFL football star and educator Johnny Bright, who moved to Alberta from the United States and lived in the Meadowlark Park neighbourhood from 1962 until he died in 1983.

“There is something special about Jasper Place that attracts Black people from different parts of the world to reside here and never leave,” Coombs-Montrose says.

WATCH | A look inside the Jasper Place Community History Project:

Inside Edmonton’s Jasper Place Community History Project

4 days ago

Duration 2:17

Meet Donna Coombs-Montrose, one of the contributors to a project documenting the history of Jasper Place in west Edmonton.

Colette Lebeuf, lead researcher and content co-ordinator with the project, works alongside Don Bouzek of Ground Zero Productions to create the videos and post them to the site.

“Every time we look into a piece of history, or someone’s story, we uncover many other layers that we might want to explore,” says Lebeuf.

Lebeuf says they are now planning for the project’s next phase, which will explore the area’s Chinese and Lebanese history.

“Jasper Place has been a quiet community that hasn’t received a lot of attention,” Lebeuf says.

Woman with white hair and glasses smiling in front of a shelf of books
Colette Lebeuf, lead researcher and content co-ordinator with the Jasper Place Community History project. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Kathryn Ivany, city archivist with the City of Edmonton, says there is much to appreciate about the Jasper Place project.

“Most of our traditional history of the city has been written totally from a colonial, totally from a white, middle-class background,” Ivany says.

“Involving the community in telling their own stories is probably the most effective way of gathering those other perspectives that aren’t usually represented.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

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