Director Cheryl Foggo on how telling the real story of John Ware in John Ware Reclaimed can help us understand the Black Canadian experience today and Canada’s history of racism. The film is currently screening virtually at the AGH Film Festival in Ontario until October 25.
It’s one of Canada’s best kept secrets that there’s a rich history of the Black diaspora in the Alberta prairies dating back over a century ago. What little is known about that history has been condensed in the popular consciousness to the story of cowboy John Ware, an enslaved American who moved to Canada and became a successful farmer. But even the historical accounts of him are limited to a single book, John Ware’s Cow Country by Grant MacEwan, published in 1960, written by a white man, and full of racist stereotypes about Black masculinity. Cheryl Foggo’s moving, enlightening, and appropriately infuriating new documentary, John Ware Reclaimed, attempts to reclaim not just John Ware’s story from the biased history books but the history of Black Canadians in the prairies.
Foggo replaces Grant MacEwan’s mythology of John Ware with a newer, more modern, and more nuanced take, which highlights both Ware’s humanity and the very real struggles he faced. She casts real life cowboy Fred Whitfield as John Ware, and together, they create iconic images of a cowboy in action in the gorgeous Alberta landscape. Through animation, Foggo grants us access to the love story between John Ware and his wife Mildred. The animated images depict the two always hanging onto each other, almost curled together, as if sheltering from the storm of the wider world. Through original country songs written by Foggo’s daughter, Miranda Martini, Foggo further sets the tone for John Ware’s story.
What interests Foggo about John Ware is not merely the opportunity to reclaim Black Canadian history, but to understand its effects on the present day. Foggo’s film is thus peppered with dialogues between Foggo and her friends, family, and people with connections to John Ware, in which they reflect on how his legacy has affected them. The silence about the history of Black Canadians in the prairies is tied up with the silence about Canadian racism.
Part of Grant MacEwan’s narrative about Ware was that he succeeded in Canada because there was no racism — and yet he also once refers to Ware by the N-word. “I absorbed that narrative that Canada was racist-free,” explains Bertrand Bickerstreth, an academic of Black Canadian history who appears in the film. “So it was very confusing when I would have these racist encounters. What’s going on exactly?” Foggo’s conversations in the film are painful but frank about how damaging the silence about Canadian racism can be. It’s not just that non-Black Canadians excuse themselves from doing the work of being anti-racist; the silence about Canadian racism gaslights Black Canadians.
Uncovering the true history of John Ware has been a decades-spanning passion project for Foggo. It began as a fictional play based on his life, John Ware Reimagined, in which she imagined scenes from his life based on what was known about it. The strong response to the play led Foggo to want to uncover more of the actual facts about John Ware and his contemporaries, to discover the complex man behind the myth. Foggo’s ancestors in the area knew John Ware, which made this an especially personal journey. The film sparks an archeological dig on one of John Ware’s former properties and sends Foggo looking at old newspapers, documents, and eventually, trying to trace John Ware’s DNA to figure out where he came from and how he ended up in Canada. Foggo’s search also expands beyond Ware himself to the story of his wife and children, especially his daughter Nettie, who is an inspiring and impressive character.
John Ware Reclaimed is one of a handful of new Canadian docs this year that aim to reclaim the history of marginalized people — from Inconvenient Indian, to No Ordinary Man, to Sex, Sin, & 69 — and it’s also one of the best and most creative in its storytelling. It made me, a native of the ‘centre of the world’ Toronto, want to learn more about Albertan history and about the history of Black Canadians. It’s also just a wonderful film about fascinating people — both in the present day and the past — that speaks to the richness of Black culture and history in Canada that is so rarely explored in the mainstream.
After the world premiere of John Ware Reclaimed at the Calgary International Film Festival, I talked to director Cheryl Foggo on the phone about her journey of telling John Ware’s story, how she created a new mythology of John Ware, and how his story continues to resonate today. The film also screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival and will play in Ontario at the Art Gallery of Hamilton Film Festival this week. It’s a must-see.
7R: What do you see as the difference between the roles of your play, John Ware Reimagined, did and what the film, John Ware Reclaimed, does?
Cheryl Foggo: I do a lot of different kinds of writing because I want to share the story of Black life in the prairie provinces throughout our history, and I want to share it with as many different people and audiences as possible. You do get a different audience for the theatre than what you would get for the film, or for a book. Obviously, there’s some overlap.
I knew that the play would stimulate interest in him. Because it was a work of imagination, I wanted to communicate his life on different levels and to different people.
7R: The film creates a new mythology around John Ware, which compared to the play, is more fact-based than imagined.
Cheryl Foggo: In the play, I do have some scenes that are based on events in his life, but they’re completely made up with dialogue. I have dialogue between him and Mildred. I appear in his lifetime: there’s a character named Joanie that’s based on my life, and Joanie appears in their world. And they, specifically John Ware, appear in her world. So that is a kind of magical and fantastical exploration of his life.
I wanted to examine all the mythologies around John Ware and look at them through what I hope is a more accurate lens in the film.
7R: You use animation in the film to tell the story of John Ware and his wife, Mildred.
Cheryl Foggo: There are very few photographs of Mildred available. I’m fascinated by her and her life and what it must have been like for a city girl from Toronto to have chicken droppings on her boots. I wanted the animation to feature her in a way, to give me another place to go when talking about Mildred and her life.
I do have that presence of John Ware in the film, with Fred Whitfield, and I wanted more of a moving, animated presence — not just still photos — for Mildred.
7R: How did you decide on a style for the animation and for showing your actor who is playing John Ware in those romantic landscapes?
Cheryl Foggo: I knew early on that I wanted to have an actor. I was more concerned about having a cowboy who looked like he could manage on a horse. Having Fred Whitfield, who is an actual Black cowboy, was a gift.
The idea for the animation came a bit later. We had first talked about a more abstract style, but as we got further along, I felt that I actually wanted to see Mildred, and to have the images based on her image. Because I’m not an animator myself, I had to rely on the skill of the animator. They did a great job of incorporating my suggestions and really hearing what I wanted and needed. As we went along in the process, the animations became more realistic and less abstract.
7R: You have actors and non-actors reading out various news items from the time. How did you decide what you wanted to include and how to do that?
Cheryl Foggo: I wanted the audience to get a sense of who John Ware was to people who knew him. All we have of that are people’s diaries, journals, entries in those community books that were quite common in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and newspaper articles. That’s how we get to know what he was like as a neighbour, a boss, or a dad.
I had many to choose from, and I wanted to represent different aspects of his life. I wanted some from his children. I wanted some from neighbours. I wanted some from newspapers that would talk about his skill as a horseman and his stature in the community. I wanted the one that was about his response to being [called] a racial slur in a bar because I wanted people to understand what his response to racism was like. I wanted to illustrate different aspects of his character, and I thought this would be a good way to do it.
From the very beginning, when I made the pitch for the film, I said that I wanted the people who shared those anecdotes to be people who were connected in some way to John Ware’s life. Laurence Hill is there because his father wrote about John Ware, and it was through articles like those, through [historian] Daniel G. Hill, that I started basing my collection of material on John Ware. I wanted people who had acted in the play or created music for the play to be part of that, as well. I have Janelle Cooper and Kirsten Alter [who acted in the play].
In the reenactments of John Ware’s life in the Duchess area [the second location where Ware lived in Alberta], that’s Jesse Lipscombe, who was the first person to play John Ware in the play. There’s two John Wares in there. Not too many people have noticed that, which is good. I don’t want people thinking, Hey that’s a different guy!
I wanted the musicians, my daughter Miranda [Martini] and Kris Demeanor, to be there. I also wanted Corb Lund, not just because he’s a western singer-songwriter whose music I enjoy, who is also a fan of John Ware, but because his family was connected to John Ware. His great grandfather was a neighbour of John Ware.
I picked every single person who delivers an anecdote for a very specific reason. I even tried to connect those people to the places where the things they’re talking about happened. Laurence Hill’s reading happens in Milestone’s restaurant in downtown Calgary; that was the site of the hotel where the original [racist slur] incident took place. Corb Lund is on land that was very near his great-grandfather’s land; it was on the site where John Ware’s last evening with neighbours took place. Janelle Cooper, who shares an anecdote about the Ware wedding that was published in the newspaper, she’s sharing that on the porch of the house where John and Mildred were married. So every location in the film is also connected to his life.
7R: Can you tell me about the songs that your daughter has written and performed for the film?
Cheryl Foggo: When I was first working on the presentation John Ware Reimagined, before it became a play, in 2012, I called Miranda, who was a student at UBC [University of British Columbia] in the creative writing department, at the time. One of her streams was songwriting, and she was already a songwriter at that time.
I told her about the presentation, and I said I needed a country song with soul that told the story of the spring flood of 1902 when the Wares lost their home. About a week later, she called me back, and she sang me the song ‘Spring 1902’, which is the last song you hear in the film. That’s how the musical components of John Ware Reimagined began.
From there, when I started working on it as a play, she [Miranda] wrote some more songs which you also hear in the film. We brought on Kris Demeanor, who also appears in the film, as a co-musical director and co-songwriter. He has also written some amazing songs for the play which aren’t in the film. Finally, I asked Miranda to write a song for the Ware’s marriage, over the animation in the film where we see John and Mildred dancing. That was the last song she wrote, called ‘Open Door’.
Miranda is a long-time collaborator of mine. She really understands what I need when I give her a couple of phrases and tell her what I want the story of the song to be. She nails it every time. She is very in tune with my needs around music. I use music in almost all of my projects. It’s a very important aspect of my own life.
7R: Can you talk about the scenes where you’re talking with your brother and with Bertrand Bickerstreth, a scholar of Black Canadian history? You’re connecting what was happening in John Ware’s life to how that sadly still resonates today.
Cheryl Foggo: It was very important for me to capture the truth of that. Mistakenly, many people believe John Ware succeeded because there was no racism. The truth is, he succeeded in spite of it. People also mistakenly believe that racism has not been a significant factor in the lives of racialized Canadians, and that is also a real misconception. I thought it was important to spend some time shining some light on that painful aspect of the lives of Black Canadians.
7R: In both those conversations, you talk about how the Canadian mythology around how not racist we are compared to Americans is a form of gaslighting. You talk about how racialized Canadians often wonder, if I’m experiencing racism, is this the first case of racism in Canada?
Cheryl Foggo: That’s 100% what it is. It’s gaslighting.
7R: That’s such an important point, and potentially could be very hard to talk about. How do you create those conversations? Because you and your subjects are very open, but the gaslighting must create a lot of silence around those things.
Cheryl Foggo: It was a very painful conversation I was having with Richard, my brother. I was really caught off guard by how emotional I felt in that conversation. I just had flashes of him as a little boy, experiencing the things he was describing. I felt incredible sadness that that was a part of his life. Of course, it was a part of my life, as well. But I think we are able to process experiences for ourselves that we actually find more painful when we observe them in people that we love. That was a very difficult conversation to have on camera. At a certain point, we forgot about the cameras and were just talking.
With Bertrand Bickerstaff, the scholar that you mentioned, it was the very same thing. Those kinds of conversations are very familiar to Bertrand and I. When we get together, we have those conversations. It was just like the two of us talking. I saw Bertrand at the premiere of the film last night, and that’s what he was saying: it was just us talking. It’s one of the many things we talk about.
I felt incredible empathy for Bertrand when he was talking about his childhood and the confusion that that gaslighting brings to children. I was recalling my own childhood in which I would internalize those experiences and just assume that there was something so off about me, that I would have these experiences in a country where it was impossible to happen. It’s really, really horrible. And sadly, it still happens. I still talk to young Black people who experience that confusion and that kind of gaslighting.
7R: Because you’re having difficult conversations on camera, so your relationship with your director of photography (DoP), Douglas Munroe, must be so important.
Cheryl Foggo: Yes, it is. It has to be a relationship of trust. I felt a lot of trust in Doug in that conversation with Richard, which was actually fairly early on in the process. Doug had spoken about how impactful those conversations were on him. He hadn’t heard about those kinds of things. He was surprised and horrified. It was actually part of the bonding that was taking place between Doug and I as we carried on through the process.
I knew Doug before. He had been the DoP on a film my husband was in a long, long time ago. But it is a vulnerable situation. And there has to be a relationship of trust in the room.
Part of it was facilitated because my producer, Bonnie Thompson, was someone that I absolutely trusted in the room, as well.
7R: Part of tracking down his story meant tracking down scholars and people in the area who are white people and may not be sensitive to the racist narratives about him. You don’t want to contribute to the problematic narrative by letting them speak, but also you have to rely on them for information.
Cheryl Foggo: It is very nerve-wracking to cold call white folks who are in a realm of John Ware’s story that I am not in. They’re in that rural realm of his story. I got incredibly lucky with both the Mallory family and the Fisher family. The Fisher family being the people who currently own the land that John Ware was on in Millerville. The Mallory family being the people who had Nettie’s archives in their home, who safeguarded them all these years. And the Douglas family, as well, who are near the Duchess farm of John Ware, where he had his last days. I got very lucky with all three families.
But I have had experiences that were less than warm, less than pleasant. It is something that I have to steel myself for each time. I also have had many experiences where people drop the N-bomb just at the mere mention of his name. That has happened so many times, and it’s so disgusting.
7R: On the one hand, you’re uncovering this untold story. But there are so many hard things about it.
Cheryl Foggo Yes, there are many people who become furious when I object to them calling John Ware the N-word. And I’m talking furious. At the minimum, many people who are very defensive and who still defend its use. I’m hoping that the film will help in that regard.
You see my brother Darcy early in the film as the baby in the family footage in the yard. He once was coming out of a building at the University of Calgary after a rehearsal of John Ware Reimagined so many years ago. He bumped into someone he knew, and that person asked what he was doing there, and he said he was there for a rehearsal of the play because Darcy is a stage manager. And that person said, “Oh, yes. I know that story very well. They called him the N-word, but there was nothing wrong with it.” All the stuff I talk about in the film is a very common experience still, and it’s very horrific.
7R: In the film, you talk about how you can’t just look at the historical record as a product of its time, because even then, people knew better.
Cheryl Foggo: That’s the thing. Many people knew better. Many people in John Ware’s time did not call him the N-word. People who excuse it by saying that’s what everyone called him, that’s a flat-out fallacy. I would go further and say that even those who used that language behind his back, they knew better, too. They just didn’t care.
7R: I really liked how you included Indigenous people and history in the film whose ancestors may have had relationships with John Ware, as well as talking about the complex relationship between Indigenous people and settlers, and the way that they still consider Black people white because they speak English.
Cheryl Foggo: I wanted to include that perspective. I think we spend a lot of time, in Canada, talking about the binary between white and Black, white and Indigenous, white and Chinese. But the truth is, we had relationships with each other, very extensive and complex but for the most part, very supportive relationships between Black and Indigenous, Black and Chinese, Chinese and Indigenous. This is an important part of our history that’s very underexplored.
7R: At the end of the film, you talk about how you’re not finished with this story and plan to continue researching. So what has changed since you finished the film?
Cheryl Foggo: I’m hoping that the film will prompt the next steps. There are some developments in the DNA — not so much in my research, but in the technology of examining old, degraded samples of DNA. That is ongoing, and I’m quite hopeful about it.
I’m also hopeful that the film will prompt another archeological dig or two. There are two properties that could be excavated. All we had was one day. I’m hoping that the importance of that research is highlighted by the film. I’m also hoping that once the film moves to the US, you simply never know, someone who knows something could see the film. Someone who has a clue could come forward.
That kind of thing happens all the time. I’ll do a radio interview, and someone will phone in to say, My great-grandfather knew John Ware, and this, that, or the other. One example of that is we did some media in Vulcan, Alberta in 2013, when we were going to go down there with the presentation of John Ware Reimagined. You see a little snippet of that in the beginning of the film. We had two presentations: one in the morning, and one later in the day. Someone left a note saying, “I have a cook pot that belonged to John Ware. Would you like to have it on stage with you?” Of course, we said yes. We went and got it and had it on stage with us. It appears in the film in about ten different scenes: when Fred Whittfield is at the fire, behind Corb Lund, in the scenes with Miranda singing. Through that, I met a person who knew Nettie Ware.
7R: It seems like your interest in the history of Black Albertans extends beyond John Ware.
I would say the bulk of my research and the output of my research, both creative, non-fiction, and journalistic, is based on the Black migration [to Canada] of 1910. I’ve written a book called Pourin’ Down Rain, which just had its 30th anniversary reprinting. It was the very first book I ever wrote, and it’s still alive because the content is still really not known. People outside of Alberta, and even people in Alberta, don’t know that we have Black history here. My next steps are around that. I’ve done a lot of work on that history, and I often tie that in with my creative works, as well.
One of my young adult novels, One Thing That’s True, part of it is set in a Northern Alberta Black settlement. I really do incorporate that history into my work.
I am also peeling back the layers of Black history that was here before my family came in 1910. I’ve written about Annie Saunders, who was a Black entrepreneur in Southern Alberta, before John Ware came, running three businesses in Pincher Creek, Alberta. I think this history is so interesting and so important, and just not well enough known.
I really appreciate people from Toronto, actually ,specifically, who reach out to me and are interested in sharing this Canadian history.
7R: Because you work in so many different forms, what do you feel you can get from making a film that maybe isn’t possible in a book or in a play?
Cheryl Foggo: Each form has its own particular beauty. Each form has a different level of difficulty and challenge for me, and they each perform a different function. Part of it is just wanting to continue to challenge myself. Part of it is wanting to reach different audiences.
There’s something incredibly visceral and powerful about live theatre, when you’re in a room with people, and you’re collectively experiencing something together. You almost become like an organism. That’s extremely powerful and that is not an experience that is available through a book or a film. But it also has a smaller audience. Unless you have Broadway or West End Blockbuster, with theatre, it’s just not going to be seen by that many people. And now we’ve seen with COVID, that theatre is very vulnerable, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that form moving forward.
With a film, you can bring someone to life, and you see them moving in front of your eyes. That’s permanent. Theatre is also very ephemeral. You do a production once or twice, if you’re lucky, and then it’s bye bye. That’s gone. A book is a permanent record, but it is not moving and living in the same way as either film or theatre. However, you are much more in control; you are the god of that world when you’re writing a book.
A film and a piece of theatre have many more moving parts. There are many more people that you have to rely on. As you pointed out, your DoP on a film like mine is really critical, and your editor. In theatre, you’re really dependent on the technicians: the sound designers and the costume people. Anyone can mess up and really impact your work. Or anyone can do something brilliant that you weren’t thinking about and really enhance your work. They’re much more collaborative.
7R: What’s next for the film?
Cheryl Foggo: We’re going to open up to community screening across the four western provinces. Lots of requests have come in. Early next year, we’ll be rolling it out in Ontario, Quebec, and further east. Eventually, it will also be on NFB.ca website where anyone can see it. We also have a US strategy and think there might be some interest in other parts of the world, as well.
It’s not a film about the past. It’s a film about who we are now because of the past.
7R: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Cheryl Foggo: I always want to mention the women in John Ware’s life and how important they’ve become to me. We talked a little about Mildred, and his daughter, Nettie, who is a figure who looms very large in my consciousness and is a person that I admire so much. One day, I hope to bring to life the family of Mildred, because that’s another really fascinating aspect of Canadian history that has roots in both Ontario and Calgary and Southern Alberta. The Lewises were from Ontario, and were a whole cast of characters themselves. They deserve a TV series.
In the scenes that are shot in the Mallory house, there’s a cabinet that you can see behind us when we’re talking. That was built by John Ware’s sister-in-law. She was an amazing carpenter. She was also a poet, and she could ride a horse like a man. She was amazing.