American Refugees: Turning to Canada for Freedom
By Rita Shelton Deverell
Reviewed by Michelle Shaw
Published by University of Regina Press
$21.95 ISBN 9780889776258
When I first picked up American Refugees the subject matter seemed obvious. The quote on the back cover highlights the fact that the website for Citizenship and Immigration Canada crashed on election night in the US in 2016 when it became clear that Donald Trump would become the new US president. It was clearly a book about the latest wave of American refugees who, in the words of the title, “turned to Canada for freedom.” But that story is only a tiny aspect of this meticulously researched little book.
Journalist and broadcaster Rita Shelton Deverell shares the stories of countless Americans who have made their way north over the years for a variety of reasons, and who have contributed immensely to Canadian society without turning a blind eye to injustices in this country. She focuses on particular periods of history when significant numbers of Americans fled to Canada such as during and after the Revolutionary War, during the period when the Underground Railway was active, and as a result of McCarthyism and the Vietnam War.
While Deverell’s words informed and challenged me, it was the personal narratives I loved most. These include the story of award-winning researcher, artist and scientist Dr. Sara Diamond, who is presently the president of the Ontario College of Art and Design University, as well as Sylvia D. Hamilton, an internationally respected, award-winning black film maker from Nova Scotia whose ancestors arrived as Loyalists during the War of 1812.
Some of the people Deverell mentions are closer to home, such as the Mayes family who came to Saskatchewan in the early 1900s. Mattie Mayes, a freed slave and one of the original settlers, served her community of Maidstone as a much-respected midwife. Her great granddaughter Dr. Charlotte Mayes Williams is also making a difference in her community of Elrose. Williams, who has been described as the first black woman veterinarian in Saskatchewan, has run a thriving veterinary practice for more than 20 years. A graduate of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, she is also a past president of the Saskatchewan Veterinary Association. Other American expats Deverell mentions include theatre pioneer Florence Bean James who came to Regina in 1952 as a refugee of McCarthyism, and Vietnam War resister Craig Dotson and his wife Kathy. The Dotsons settled in Regina where Craig “found his haven and his career in the unique social democratic government of Saskatchewan in the 1970s.” One of his proudest achievements as a civil servant was the design of a new Workers’ Compensation plan as senior advisor in the Department of Labour.
Deverell intersperses these narratives with her own story: she grew up in Texas and immigrated to Canada in 1967 when she married Canadian, Rex Deverell. She also includes excerpts from her previous writings, productions and broadcasts which highlight aspects of her life, such as her friendship with Florence Bean James.
Deverell is a television broadcaster, social activist and a founder of VisionTV. She has been named to the Maclean’s Honour Roll of Outstanding Canadians and the Canadian Broadcaster Hall of Fame. In 2005, she was made a Member of the Order of Canada.
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