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From student to author: U of R Alumna brings story of Black Saskatchewan pioneer to life

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: November 18, 2020 8:00 a.m.

Li’l Shadd, first published in English in 2015, has now been translated into French.
Li’l Shadd, first published in English in 2015, has now been translated into French. Photo: Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum and Melfort Museum

Participation in the Faculty of Arts internship program at the University of Regina has many advantages, helping to prepare students with the work experience and skills they need to succeed in their careers. For U of R alumna Alix Lwanga, BA’15, her internship was a gift that keeps on giving. In 2015, as a part of her work experience, Lwanga embraced the opportunity to publish her first book, Li’l Shadd: A Story of Ujima, with co-author and illustrator Miriam Körner. Five years later, the French translation of the children’s book has just been released Ti-Shadd L’Ujima au Quotidien.

“The internship was a really great experience, and it’s still bearing fruit now as people are interested in the story of Dr. Shadd,” says Lwanga, talking about the first Black doctor in the province, Dr. Alfred Schmitz Shadd (1870-1915). “I participated in the Student Co-op program as well, so the U of R provided a lot of opportunity for me to work and go to school. It was a really dynamic experience.”  

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Alix Lwanga’s U of R internship is a gift
that keeps on giving. Photo: Alix Lwanga

Lwanga’s interest in the life of the Saskatchewan pioneer began a century after his death from appendicitis.

In 2015, Lwanga was finishing her undergraduate degree, majoring in Political Science in the Faculty of Arts, when she accepted an internship with the Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum (SACHM). The Association was working on documenting the life of Dr. Shadd who moved to Melfort in 1904 and became renowned for his compassion, dedication, and tireless commitment to his patients and the community of Melfort where he sat on the town council and school board.

To find out more, SACHM sent Lwanga to the Melfort Museum which has archived journals and information relating to Dr. Shadd and his many initiatives, including small-scale farming (he founded the Melfort Agricultural Society), politics (he sought election to Saskatchewan’s first legislative assembly), and journalism (he bought the Prince Albert Advocate and republished it as The Carrot River Journal in 1908).

“One story that stood out for me was when he had to attend to a First Nations family who had a baby girl who was very sick,” explains Lwanga. “That’s the story I wrote the book around.”

Told from the vantage point of Dr. Shadd’s young son Garrison, Li’l Shadd is a fictionalized account of an actual event where Dr. Shadd was called to a remote farm to help save the life of an infant girl who was Cree. 

“When I found the story, we were trying to think of a way that we could really express what happened and to let everyone know about all of Dr. Shadd’s work and his role as a pioneer in Saskatchewan,” says Lwanga, who was mentored by Dr. Liz Cooper, a former associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the U of R, to help write the book.

In the end, Lwanga and Körner decided to write the story around the African-American value ‘Ujima’ which means ‘shared work and responsibility’. ‘Ujima’ is one of seven values celebrated during Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday from December 26 to January 1 that celebrates family and community.

“In the story, Dr. Shadd explains to Li’l Shadd why shared work and responsibility is important, that we need to go out in the community and help others,” says Lwanga, who wanted to write this story for young people. “It’s a children’s book with a learning guide in the back. Children can grow up knowing the story and learning the values. They can draw on this book in school when they study multi-culturalism and shared values of community.”

When Li’l Shadd was first published in 2015, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education purchased 500 copies and distributed them to schools in the province.

As Lwanga discovered during her research, life for Dr. Shadd as a Black man in Saskatchewan was not easy.

“At first when Dr. Shadd settled in Melfort, they only allowed him to practice medicine on animals,” says Lwanga, describing the racism Dr. Shadd and Indigenous people faced. “Eventually, they allowed him to work on First Nations people and then the community accepted him and allowed him to work on other Melfort community members.”

There was also racial tension when Dr. Shadd ran for political office.

“When he ran as a member of the legislature, there is a story of them throwing ballots overboard into the water. His life is a story of overcoming.”

Lwanga, who did not know of the stories of Dr. Shadd growing up, hopes that through books such as hers the contributions of settlers of African heritage in Saskatchewan will become well known. Now in Melfort, there are streets and a river in the area named after Dr. Shadd – some people in the community even gave their babies the middle name Shadd, in honour of the man who delivered them.

“It’s important not to forget the contributions of people from all cultures and see that Saskatchewan and Canada really is multicultural,” says Shadd. “I’m sure there’s lots of other stories out there waiting to be discovered and written about so that young people can easily digest them.”

Currently, Lwanga works with the Ugandan Canadian Association of Saskatchewan.