VIFF Review: ‘John Ware Reclaimed’ looks to change the conversation about the famous black cowboy

A famous person you have probably never heard of. This is the description that Cheryl Foggo gives John Ware, an African-American cowboy who migrated north following the American civil war and became one of the earliest ranchers in what is now Alberta. He is the namesake of two mountains and a creek, but what, really, do we know of him?

As with many people who have places named after them, we only ever hear the stories we tell about them and those stories are often, in a word, shallow. John Ware is no exception to this. Much of what we know comes from the book John Ware’s Cow Country by former Lt. Governor of Alberta Grant McEwan. It’s well-intentioned enough, but it was still written by a white man in the 1960s and is tainted by the cultural attitudes of the day.

Who was this man really, though? For a man steeped in local legend, what do we really know about him? This is what Canadian historian, playwright, and filmmaker Cheryl Foggo aims to find out with John Ware Reclaimed.

The documentary ends up being as much about Foggo’s journey to find the details of Ware’s life as it is about that life. The fact of the matter is that the stories we tell about figures like John Ware often end up replacing the facts. While it’s fairly easy to trace the history of European communities that migrated west during this period, the history of African American migration north is a lot more difficult to follow. Part of this is that it’s hard to trace the names and dates of freed slaves who took on new names, and another part of it is that we’d rather forget how we treated black people in this country in the past.

Ware faced the same kinds of racism that African-American and African-Canadian people face today. In life, he was refused services, profiled by police, and a had nickname that I won’t spell out here. In death, his story has been erased and sanitised into something we can tell ourselves is acceptable, even when large portions of it are not.

For Foggo, John Ware has been a lifelong concern. She started a research file in the early days of her career as a writer and in 2012 wrote a play titled John Ware Reimagined –songs from which are staged throughout this film– about his life and times. She admits that she knows she is no longer objective. She feels real love for the man and his family, a real result of spending a lifetime learning about someone.

I can’t say that there is a ton of new information here that I haven’t been able to find elsewhere, but I must admit that I never knew to look before. Foggo’s personal journey with the subject is compelling, and as the film draws to a close it becomes apparent that she has only scratched the surface of John Ware’s story and that her journey must continue. While that may be slightly frustrating as a filmgoer, it’s also an apt metaphor for a history we are failing to remember.

Foggo pledges to keep following up on the leads her research has uncovered, and I, for one, hope to see another film when that history is finally unravelled.

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