Freed slave who became Alberta rancher to be featured in National Film Board production

CBC News Posted: Aug 14, 2017 9:25 PM MT Last Updated: Aug 15, 2017 5:08 PM MT

The story of John Ware is tough to resist — a freed slave who made his way north to establish a ranch in what became Alberta — and is now the subject of a National Film Board movie being shot on the old Ware homestead. 

Cheryl Foggo, the Calgary writer behind the production, previously tackled Ware's story in a play but can't shake the pull of the early settler. 

"I think it's in part because of who he was. He's really just an amazing person and there's always more for me to discover as I go along," she told The Homestretch while discussing her film, John Ware: Reclaimed.

"I'm pretty sure I'll never stop finding out new things about him, so he remains fascinating."

The life of Ware was also the subject of a recent CBC Calgary podcast. 

Ware arrived in southern Alberta in 1882 and worked as a ranchhand before establishing his own cattle operation. He eventually settled in the area of what is now Brooks. 

Correcting misconceptions

Foggo's play, John Ware: Reimagined was a more fantastical look at the life and times of the black rancher, but the film is more grounded.

"This film aims to correct some misconceptions about John Ware, so everything in this film is as true to his real life and his actual existence as I can possibly make it. It's based on the best knowledge that I have today," she said. 

The man who plays Ware is tailor-made for the role. 

John Ware was freed as a slave at age 20 and made his way to Alberta in search of a new life. (Glenbow Archives)

Fred Whitfield is an African-American with a build that equals Ware's large frame, and just happens to be a world champion calf roper. 

"I was looking a person of the approximate size of John Ware, who was a black man, who could handle himself on a horse," said Foggo.

"Somebody said 'call the Stampede and see if they'll put you in touch with Freddi Whitfield.'"

Fred Whitfield as John Ware, in a new film about the legendary southern Alberta cattle rancher. (Submitted by the National Film Board)

Serendipity

Whitfield says it's an honour to be cast in a role that resonates with his own life. 

"I came up in the sport of rodeo when it was predominantly white and there were challenges for me," he said, echoing Ware's struggles in a predominantly white settler society. 

"I just found that, you know, it was going to be a tough road, but I wanted to endure and overcome all the obstacles in my way."

Foggo said it was serendipity that she found Whitfield and was able to get him to play the role. 

"Really, Fred just has to be himself because he's like an imprint, he's like the presence of John Ware in this film and on this land," she said.

"When we got him in costume today and in makeup and everything, with his hat on, it was truly like watching John Ware walk across the land where he used to live."

Plus, Whitfield can do all his own stunts. 

"I don't like to see Jamie Foxx herding cattle out there," he said with a laugh.