In 1896 Clifford Sifton became the Minister of the Interior for Canada. Part of his responsibility was to develop an immigration policy that would encourage people to settle in Canada’s West. Sifton was born in Ontario but had lived most of his early life in Manitoba and was well aware of the need for the west to entice people to come and settle the country.
He was also aware that Canada needed more people than those willing to move from Ontario or England. He made the immigration policies less restrictive, provided for block settlements, and established colonial offices in Europe and the United States. Over 3 million people would come to Canada during this time with most following the continental railway to establish homesteads in the west.
The use of block settlements allowed for settlers of the same ethnicity to establish small colonies. Some were planned liked the Hutterite, Doukhobor, or Mennonite colonies others occurred when a member of an ethnic community established a homestead in Canada and encouraged other members to follow him. In those cases Sifton often allowed them to establish their homesteads close to one another, but to ensure they would eventually assimilate into the Anglo-Canadian culture the Canadian government made sure these settlements were scattered across the country. Today communities like New Norway, Neerlandia, Lloydminster, Falher, Bruderheim, and Nisku can trace their beginnings to the success of the block settlement policy.
However when Frank Oliver became Minister of the Interior for Canada he was pressured to prevent African Americans from homesteading in Canada. Unfortunately Oliver's legacy would include the drafting and passing of a law, in 1911, that forbid any future blacks from immigrating to Canada.
Just a few years before the law came into affect several groups of African Americans took advantage of the opportunity to escape the racial conflicts occurring in Oklahoma and surrounding states. One group established homesteads at Amber Valley others settled in the Wildwood area and a third group established their homesteads in a place called Keystone.
Some think that the name Keystone came as a result of the association the area had with Stone’ s Corner, known today as Warburg. Others think it came from an area located in Oklahoma. Fur traders and lumberjacks explored the area as the 19th Century was coming to a close. Two bachelors, Richard Funnell and John Sullivan were among the first to decide to make a homestead claim. Funnell made friends with just about everybody and while working in Edmonton he met William Allen, an African American looking for a new opportunity. He told Allen about his homestead and invited Allen to check out the area.
The year was 1909 and Allen thought he had found paradise. Allen and his wife Mattie then persuaded 35 black families from Okmulgee, Oklahoma to lay a homestead claim in the Keystone area in 1910 which eventually grew to a total of 52 families. Allen had been born in Georgia before the Civil War and after it ended he moved to Oklahoma and later to Kansas and Utah. Each time he would encounter conflicts with his white neighbors. He finally decided to take advantage of the offer Canada was making for homesteaders. He believed that Keystone’s remoteness would allow the new residents to be shielded from any backlash from possible prejudices held by others.
Bill Allen and Charles King were active in the community and supported the building of the first church and a school. The Allen’s were the first to lose a family member and they established a cemetery on their land with the burial of their love one. The last burial occurred in 1983 when Emma King died. By this time many of the Black families had moved away and the cemetery was neglected. In 1985 the Breton & District Historical Society decided to restore the cemetery and erect a cairn to honor the Black families who first came, like so many others, to establish a new life in a land of opportunity.
A school was built in 1912 and was first called Keystone and later renamed Funnell School. It would remain open until 1954. In 1915 Samuel Hooks established a homestead and his son’s wife Gwen Hooks would teach at Funnell School then transfer to Warburg after the school was closed. Gwen would eventually retire, after a 35-year career, and moved to Leduc where in 1997 she published the best biography on black settlements in Alberta with her book The Keystone Legacy: Reflections of a Black Pioneer in honor of her husband Mark.
Most of the men would leave for the winter and either go to work in Edmonton or would haul lumber but in either case the women and children often remained on the homestead and work the fields. For a number of years the population remained stagnate, then began to drop as many of the homesteaders just couldn’t adjust to Alberta’s much cooler weather and that coupled with the difficulty in clearing enough trees to plough the required acreage to finalize their homestead claim became too great a burden.
The isolation of Keystone, which had originally been considered as an advantage, became a major drawback as it could take more than a week to cover the nearly sixty miles of weaving trails to the nearest railhead at Leduc for them to sell their harvest or get supplies.
Then the advent of World War I had many Keystone residents either enlist in the army or go to work in Edmonton. Most did not return to Keystone and the African American population continued to decline. By the middle of the 1920’s events would lead to a large influx of newcomers to Keystone further changing the demographics of the area.
The huge forests that caused the isolation of Keystone would be the very thing that would draw not only African Americans but also entrepreneurs to seek their fortune. Shortly after Alberta became a province a Mr. Sanford Nelson arrived and established a sawmill to supply the needs of homesteaders. Other lumberjacks would float their logs down the Popular Creek to the North Saskatchewan and on to Edmonton. Lumbering as an export was curtailed after the floods of 1915 and would not return for another ten years.
In 1912 Madz Jacobson arrived from Cheyenne, Wyoming discovered that the land was ideal for growing a new crop called alfalfa. The crop caught on and soon was the crop of choice and when Hans Hanson won a number of prizes in Toronto and Chicago it caught the attention of the University of Alberta. The university would established an experimental plot in 1929 to design a system of farming suitable for a wooded soil belt they called it the Breton plot and still use it today after 84 years.
To solve the isolation of Keystone the UFA Alberta Government began to work with the CPR Railroad to build a link from Lacombe to Keystone. They called it the Lacombe & Blindman Railway and in 1926 Keystone was linked to the outside world by rail. In 1929 the railway was completed when it connected to Leduc. By this time it had become the Lacombe & Northwestern Railroad. The immediate affect of the railway was to reestablish the lumber industry. Within a short time over a 1,000 men were working at 15 different sawmills and more new homesteaders were establishing their claims.
Within months of the arrival of the railway Keystone was booming. A general store, hardware, and a blacksmith shop were all built in short order. The community decided to honor their MLA Douglas Corney Breton who had worked tirelessly to bring the railway to them and in 1927 they changed the community’s name from Keystone to Breton. The name Keystone would fade into history until oil was discovered, but that is a story for another time.