Lights, camera, library? A local film headed to the Montreal Independent Film Fest sheds light on the importance of primary resources to capture historic stories.
The North Was Our Canaan is a local documentary that shares the story of those who crossed the Detroit River into Sandwich seeking freedom from slavery. Directed by Anushray Singh (MFA 2020) and produced by local historian Irene Moore Davis and Leddy librarian Heidi Jacobs, it features the voices of descendants residing in historic Sandwich Town.
“First-hand stories and interviews allow us to understand history from real people who were connected to past events,” says Davis, local historian with the Essex County Black Historical Research Society. “These voices bring history to life and shed light on stories that may not have been heard.”
The film collaboration began after an event organized by Teajai Travis in 2017, when Davis spoke about the women involved in helping those seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad between Detroit and Sandwich.
Davis described significant local historical people and events that are still unknown to many Windsorites. Hoping to document and share the stories more broadly, Jacobs and Davis decided to produce a short film.
The filmmakers sat down with descendants Lana Talbot, Charlotte Watkins, Kimberly Simmons, and Teajai Travis to capture the stories of those who undertook this daring quest for freedom and sought to forge a new life in Canada.
“We spent hours listening to these moving stories, stories that could change how people saw and understood history,” said Jacobs.
“It was critical that we preserve these stories and make them accessible — not just for the community, but for generations to come.”
In addition to interviews, library resources played a key role to help uncover and visualize the story.
“Many of the visual elements we used to complement the documentary were shot at the Leddy Library,” said Jacobs. “We used historical maps, microfilm of Voice of the Fugitive, the first Black newspaper published in Canada, and consulted several resources from the library’s Archives and Special Collections, including Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American slave from 1850.”
The film received an internal grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and is the first part of a larger project aiming to collect, document, and share the rich history and inspiring legacy of enslaved people who sought freedom in Canada.
A website containing the film, additional information, and historical context will be hosted by the library’s Centre for Digital Scholarship as an online exhibit in the near future.
The North was our Canaan will be showcased at the Montreal Independent Film Fest in November. The filmmakers invite the community to join the premiere online Tuesday, Nov. 17.