VIFF Interview: Cheryl Foggo on her film ‘John Ware Reclaimed’

John Ware Reclaimed is a look at one of the least told types of stories in Canada, that of black history. John Ware himself is a locally famous figure and telling his story has been a lifelong interest of Canadian historian and writer Cheryl Foggo, who wrote and directed the film. I have already watched and reviewed it, and spoiler alert: it’s good.

I was able to sit down with her over Zoom this week to speak about the film, Black Canadian history, and the stories that get told.

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Note: This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

Matthew: Can you tell me a little bit about Cheryl Foggo?

Cheryl: I’m a lifelong Calgarian. Born here and lived here my whole life. I’m an author, playwright and historian, as well as being a filmmaker, and writer, director of John Ware Reclaimed.

Matthew: It seems like John Ware is a lifelong interest for you. Would that be accurate? 

Cheryl: Yes, that would be accurate. I first learned of his existence when I was pretty young –11 or 12 years old. I became more interested in him when I got older and started wanting to be a writer. I started collecting stories about him or noting things whenever I heard anything. So yeah, I think it’s fair to say it’s pretty well, a lifelong interest.

Matthew: In the in the documentary, you mentioned that when you started thinking about becoming a writer, your John Ware file was one of your earliest files that you started, can you tell me a bit about how that started? Was there any particular story that started the genesis of that file?

Cheryl: I was interested in writing about my own ancestral community, as a writer, because it was a story that was very untold. Both sets of my maternal great-grandparents settled in Western Canada in and around 1910, as you learn in the film. That story was very under-told, no one that I knew, had ever heard of it. 

And when I say no one that I knew no one outside of that community, even black people from other ancestries, from the Caribbean or from Africa, had never heard that story. 

So I started out wanting to write that story. In a way, it was a counterpoint to the John Ware narrative, because he was the only figure in Alberta’s black history that anyone had ever heard of. If they did know anything about black history, his was the only story. 

So at first, I started collecting stuff about him as a way of just adding to my files that I was creating, because I wanted to tell my own ancestral story. 

The more I learned about him, the more some of it didn’t seem to fit right with me; some of it sounded kind of off. So I got more interested in his story, the more I started to see that I thought there were gaps in it; just as there were in our general black history. In the canon, the non-existent canon of black history in Western Canada.

Matthew: I mean, as a person who’s lived in Western Canada for 99.9% of my entire life, I had no idea. Maybe this is a loaded question, but do you feel like that’s an active erasure, or is it just a casual? There seems to be a theme in white attitudes towards racialized people that we say “well, that’s not important”. Do you think that it is more active than that? Or we just put it aside and say, “Oh, yeah, everything was great”?

Cheryl: I do think it’s active, and I think saying “Oh, that’s not important” is also a form of active erasure. When you think about the very small pockets of black history that we are aware of in Canada, you’ve got the Underground Railroad story in Ontario. Then after that, you’ve got the black loyalists story in the Maritimes in Nova Scotia. Both of those stories have been told in a certain way that puts an incredibly positive spin on Canada’s relationship with people of African descent. 

Those are the stories that are told, those are the stories that have not been erased. Yes, they have been misconstrued. Yes, they have been mistold, but they have not been actively erased.

When you look at other black histories in Western Canada and in other parts of Canada that don’t have those same hooks that seem so neat and tidy, and so positive, and to uphold the narrative that Canada has about itself: that it is not racist. You have to know that they are actively erased because not all of the black histories were actively erased. Some were accepted and prettied up for the cameras. So yes, I do believe it’s an active erasure.

Matthew: Why do you think the John Wares story wasn’t erased? As mentioned in the film, he had several contemporaries with similar or related stories to his, why do you feel his story wasn’t?

Cheryl: I think for two reasons. One, because his story, similar to the Underground Railroad story, seemed to offer a narrative of Canada as not being a place where racism happened. Because here was the black man, formerly enslaved, who came to Alberta before it was even Alberta, and succeeded. So because his story did fit in with that narrative, or seemed to, from the perspective of people that were telling that story, his was one that could be included.

I think the second reason that we remember John Ware and we don’t remember the other black cowboys that were around in southern Alberta is that he was a very memorable figure across many different areas of life. He was memorable as a cowboy and as a horseman, but then he also became a rancher, and he also pioneered irrigation. He checked off so many boxes that it was easier for him to stand out in a lot of different ways.

Matthew: Collecting all the stories for your file eventually turned into a play, which I regret to say I haven’t seen, called John Ware Reimagined. Can you tell me a little bit about how the play came to be?

Cheryl: In 2012 I started working on a presentation for Black History Month because Calgary was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Stampede, and Tunde Dawodu, who was a friend of mine and the artistic director of an African festival that happened every summer in Calgary said “you know, it’s time for you to put your file to work, Cheryl” because we should make sure john ware isn’t forgotten in this year-long celebration. Even though John Ware had died before the Stampede started. He was still so integral to that cowboy culture that the Stampede celebrates.

So I said, “Yeah, you right.” I did a presentation for Black History Month that was me with slides giving a lecture. I hired a couple of actors to do a couple of scenes that I had written from John and Mildred life, and I hired my daughter to write some songs and the musical director. It was just a little hour-long presentation, but the response to it was so strong and powerful.

We got invited to take that presentation to other places in Alberta, especially where John Ware or his children had lived. The response was so strong that my niece said to me, “you really should write it as a play.” So I got to work on it, and it had its first production in Calgary in 2014. And then another production in Edmonton in 2017.

Matthew: Are there any plans for the play to travel?

Cheryl: I would love for it to travel, but right now theatre is like, like many forms of the arts is not happening. Also, that’s kind of not up to me! I have sent it around, and when COVID is over, please urge your local theatre companies to consider it because yes, I would love for it to travel.

It’s so different from the film. It’s really an act of imagination. It’s a fictionalized account of me in John Ware’s life and time and him in mine? You see little snippets of it in the film with the animation at the beginning at the end, you know, me getting to put myself with John Ware. I think it would be a great companion piece, for a company to have a production of the play and the screening of the film be a great conversation starter.

Matthew: Given that the play was quite different than a movie, I was wondering why not just adapt to play to film?

Cheryl: That’s a great question, and certainly, that’s a possibility, but while I was working on the play I saw how much hunger there was for John Ware’s story, and I didn’t want a fictionalized version of him to stand as my only significant document of record about his life. 

I wanted to make sure that people could differentiate between what I had done with the play and what I actually knew about his life. For example, people will sometimes think that dialogue that I created for john and Mildred was based on some sort of conversation that I knew had taken place, but of course not, it was total imagination. So I thought it was really important to do a more fact-based project about him, in addition to the play.

Matthew: How long was the timeframe of shooting the documentary?

CherylFrom the time that I first pitched the idea to the [National Film Board of Canada], it has been about five years. I pitched in 2015, and here we are now in 2020. 

Matthew: And how did you come to meet Fred Whitfield, the gentleman who played John Ware in the film?

CherylFred Whitfield is a famous figure in rodeo circles, and he is actually quite well known in Calgary because of Stampede. For many, many years, he has been a real crowd favourite at the rodeo here, so I knew of him.  

When my producer, Bonnie Thompson, responded to my query in which I was saying that I feel like I need a presence of John Ware in this film, that the old black and white photos that are available aren’t enough, visually, she said, “Okay, well, who might that be?” 

I said, “Well, in, you know, in my fantasy world, it would be Fred Whitfield.” He’s of the approximate size of john ware, and he is a black cowboy. He’s a person that looks like he can ride, you know, he can handle himself on a horse, but I thought that was just a total fantasy.

Bonnie was amazing the way she reached out to Fred’s team and through the Stampede. We knew he was coming up for the Stampede, and we persuaded him to stay in Alberta for an extra day to do our first little shoot, and it went from there.

Fred Whitfield / John Ware Reclaimed
Fred Whitfield / John Ware Reclaimed

Matthew: It’s always nice when things come together that way!

Cheryl: Yes, I feel very lucky

Matthew: This is one question I was left with from the documentary. John Ware moved to Dutchess, Alberta, which is where his story eventually ends. Can you tell us a little bit of why he moved to Duchess?

Cheryl: There, it was a complicated menu of reasons, and in a film, you have to make choices about what you can include. Of course, there are important elements that can’t include, and I wasn’t able to really tell that story.

It was that the Government of Canada had shifted its priorities about how they wanted the land in Western Canada to be used. At one time, ranchers were pretty useful for them as part of their strategy of usurping or taking over that land from the indigenous people that were here. Ranchers served a purpose toward that outcome but then [the government] wanted more people. They wanted more settlements, they wanted more European settlement, and that loaned itself more to homesteading packages, more farming and, and communities.

So they started making things a little bit tougher on the ranchers who wanted to expand their operations. Not all, but they started making things quite a bit tougher on John Ware, and he had had a tougher go right from the beginning. When you read through his homestead file, it’s an incredible document of perseverance on his part, and stubbornness. 

As I say in the film, he was pretty stubborn, and he was also incredibly savvy. He knew who are the right people to get on his side and get on his team and, but they had asked him to pay quite a bit more per acre, they had asked quite a bit higher price for him. 

It had been quite a tough battle, getting them to treat him the same way that they were treating a number of his neighbours just in terms of the price they were asking for his land. 

I think he, in the end, he just was a bit worn down. He really wanted to expand his operation. He was very ambitious and wanted to have more cattle, and in order to do that, he needed a bigger parcel. 

At that time south-eastern Alberta was opening up because it’s a very different landscape and the government was much more open to bigger operations out there. 

Matthew: Just for clarity sake, you’re saying that whatever that price was, purchase price or taxation, what they were asking for from John Ware was greater than that of his white contemporaries?

Cheryl: Yeah, and I don’t want to overstate that yet, because I haven’t put the hundreds of hours of research into that it would require, which would require me to read the homestead files of a wide range of his neighbours, but I know that there were three white neighbours of John Ware’s who were not asked to pay the same price that he was asked to pay. 

The way it worked was people would stake out a piece of land that they thought looked good, and then they would make improvements on it, and then they would apply to actually be allowed to stay there and work the land. 

And there were three arms: it was the Hudson Bay Company, the railroad companies and the government that controlled that land and who could be there and who could do what. It was quite a bureaucracy. And yes, he was asked to pay more than then at least some of his white neighbours that I’m aware of.

Matthew: And you mentioned that the government at least used ranching as a means to displace the local indigenous people as well. That seems a little bit on the insidious side to use John Ware as a tool for that but to then penalize him as a different other.

CherylIt’s very complicated, and of course, he wasn’t the only rancher that was used in that way, but I think what you’re saying is other ranchers benefited more from being used in that way. Yeah, it’s a pretty complicated and ugly and insidious history.

Matthew: Well, given all the things that have still happened in Canada, it’s not that shocking, to be totally honest. As we wind up, I did want to ask: at the end of the documentary, it seems like there are lots of threads still to examine. Have you been able to follow up on any of that, in the meantime?

Cheryl: I am following up on some of those threads, and I intend to follow through on all of them, and I will always share what I find. There are also other threads I was exploring that I didn’t keep in the film, because like I say, you make choices out of 40 hours of footage you’re making a film that’s a certain length. So yes, there’s more to come. 

Matthew: Do you have any idea what that’s gonna look like? Perhaps another film or Book?

Cheryl: I had always intended that I would write a book. While I was working on the film, I realized that I actually wanted a trilogy of works and that the play, the film, and a book would stand together as my reporting on what I found. So I do intend to write a book, but I won’t rule out other possibilities. I will get the information to people somehow.

Matthew: Well, I guess I just want to say thank you for all your time this morning. Congratulations on the film. I hope that rollout continues to go well It’s playing both here in Vancouver and Calgary right now, right?

Cheryl: That’s right. Yes. It’s at CIFF and VIFF.

Matthew: Is it going to any other festivals this or next year?

CherylNext year for sure! We’re just in the process of talking about what our rollout is going to be for the rest of Canada, and then into the US and then hopefully other parts of the world as well.

Matthew: Obviously, COVID is happening, but is there a plan for any kind of theatrical release? Or do you think it might go straight to a streaming service?

CherylI think it once we roll it out, and we hit the festivals that we want to hit, it will definitely go on to the National Film Board website, as all their projects do, that’s where anybody can have access to them. In addition, once these festivals in, in the four Western provinces, are over, we’re going to do a ton of community screenings because there are lots of people knocking on the door to have it at you know, in their community halls, the ranch halls, in the universities. 

So, we’ll get it out there and make it available for lots of people to see. One thing people should look for, in when they’re watching the film, is all the locations that are relevant to john Where’s life. So everything that you see is, is relevant to some aspect of his life. And there’s also a cook pot that’s in a lot of the scenes that would be a fun game for viewers just to spot the cook pot, which actually did belong to John Ware, so just a fun little activity.

I really enjoyed speaking with Cheryl Foggo. There is so much left of John Ware’s story to explore, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.


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