Now Streaming: John Ware Reclaimed Corrects History Anew

Photo by Shaun Robinson

By Pat Mullen

Director Cheryl Foggo corrects history in John Ware Reclaimed. This popular doc, now streaming for free from the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) to mark Black History Month, revisits the story of Black cowboy John Ware. Foggo digs deeper into Ware’s past and goes beyond the superficial snippets that form his recorded history. She looks at Ware’s story through the lens of her own experience of growing up Black in Alberta. John Ware Reclaimed is a film about the erasure of history and, as the title says, the reclaimation of it. Foggo succeeds in giving Ware his due with this thoughtful and inspiring tale. It asks audiences to recognizes how much Canadian history misrepresents itself, when so many records tell only one part of a story.

“While Canada has often portrayed itself as a racially harmonious land that embraces diversity, the newspaper clippings that Foggo incorporates in the film tell a different story,” wrote Courtney Small while reviewing the film for POV. “John Ware Reclaimed shatters this notion by throwing bricks of truth through the country’s saintly stained glassed windows. Ware’s success did not exclude him or his children from the harsh realities that come with having Black skin. In paralleling Ware’s life with her own experiences growing up in Alberta, Foggo constructs a compelling timeline that shows how the anti-Black sentiment of Ware’s day persists, just in a different form, to this day.”

John Ware Reclaimed, Cheryl Foggo, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Synopsis: Is it possible to love someone who died before you were born? Cheryl Foggo believes so. John Ware Reclaimed follows author, playwright, and filmmaker Foggo on her quest to uncover the rich and complex story of John Ware, the iconic and larger-than-life Black cowboy who settled in Alberta prior to the turn of the 20th century. As she researches the many truths of Ware’s life amid the superficial myths and mistellings surrounding him, she recalls her childhood in Calgary, Alberta. She revisits her own experiences of racism, and her family’s pioneer history as part of the 1910 migration to western Canada to escape violence in the southern United States. She also evokes the often-suppressed history of a thriving Black presence in the Canadian west: the Black cowboys, ranchers, labourers, and farmers who lived, worked, and raised families here, including earlier generations of her own family in northern Saskatchewan and Alberta. Part ode, part eulogy, part mystery, with views of sweeping prairie landscapes and music inspired by John Ware, the film reveals Ware to be a rounded and sometimes enigmatic man, and reaffirms him as a major figure in Albertan—and Canadian—history. Foggo’s archival, genealogical, and archaeological research, and her creative reimagining of John Ware’s life and family, show who he might have been, how he might have lived, and what his legacy means for a version of Canada that often denies its history of anti-Black racism.

Presented in partnership with the NFB.