Jon Cornish can tell you about John Ware if you ask him too.
And for those who don’t know the story of John Ware, the tale Cornish tells gives you all you need to know as to why Black History Month is important to mark, important to engage in.
Not being from Alberta, I did not know anything about John Ware, unfortunately. Not at all. So Cornish, the former Calgary Stampeder running back and Hall of Famer who is now a public speaker, financial advisor and chancellor of the University of Calgary, starts me down the path of knowing more.
More about the fascinating life of a man who was born into slavery in the U.S., but ended up becoming a remarkable figure in the settling and development of the Alberta frontier in the late 1800’s.
“He was a great wrangler,” says Cornish of Ware, who in 1882 helped drive 3,000 head of cattle from Montana to a ranch southwest of Calgary, and then ended up staying there, becoming an influential – and in some ways legendary local.
“A bronc rider,” adds Cornish. “He established a name for himself not just as a person who was really good at what he did as a cowboy, but as a person that believed in community.”
Ware has been immortalized in Alberta. There’s a school named after him in Calgary, and a building at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology as well. Mount Ware overlooks the site of the rancher’s first homestead, about a 90-minute drive southwest of Calgary. In 2020, a documentary titled “John Ware Reclaimed” was produced by writer and filmmaker Cheryl Foggo.
“There have been pivotal members of the culture of Canada who have been Black and their legacy has not been treated with the same level of respect as others,” says Cornish, reflecting not only on the hard-fought battles to ensure Ware was recognized properly, but on the continuing efforts to bring more Black historical figures and their stories to light.
“There’s so much history that’s just ignored,” says Cornish. “And I think Black History Month really allows us to talk about those stories.”
On February 13, Cornish will share his own story, as he gives a speech at the Calgary Public Library. Entitled “Power and Privilege in an Intersectional Life: How Everyone Was Wrong About Me,” it will illustrate his journey as a person of mixed heritage, “navigating a world rife with stereotypes and misconceptions.”
“Black History Month is a great time to talk about this because everybody’s story involves some level of intersectionality,” says Cornish.
“I think the topic of intersectionality is super important to me because I have always lived life on the margins,” he adds. “I mean, obviously, I have all this success, achievements, all that kind of stuff. But the reality is that there was no cultural group that wanted me.”
“When I was coming up as an elementary school kid,” recalls Cornish, “I was the Black kid called names. When I got to high school, I was the Black kid that was white. I was called ‘Oreo.’ I get down to college, and I’m Canadian, but I’m Black. But I’m not anything that they think of as a Black person, right?”
In battling the misconceptions, stereotypes and racism that he faced, Cornish rose to become one of the great running backs in CFL history, rushing for nearly 7,000 yards during his career, winning two Grey Cups with the Stampeders and being named the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian three times. In 2013, the native of New Westminster, B.C. was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player and he won the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year.
At the same time that his football career was flourishing, Cornish began to engage more in public speaking, beginning with a few speeches for the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation. He found he enjoyed talking to crowds and made it a bigger part of his life. “They’re some of my most favourite opportunities,” he says of speaking engagements.
Cornish has gotten a chance to do even more public speaking, after being named University of Calgary chancellor, in 2022. As well as sitting on the university’s board and chairing the U of C senate, Cornish gives convocation addresses in the fall and spring. “That’s really the only time that I’m, like, wearing the robes,” he jokes.
In his address later this month, Cornish will look back at his own life and at the hurdles he’s overcome, but he’ll likely pivot to the future and how things can change in a positive manner, while not losing sight of the past and the terrible damages done by institutionalized racism throughout history.
“It’s important to acknowledge what those things did,” Cornish says. “But at the same time, also acknowledge that we can move on past those if we can start breaking down some of the systemic barriers preventing black people from succeeding at higher levels.”
“I think we need to keep on going down this path of understanding that ignorance will exist. But at the same time, being able to educate, build bridges, and move forward together is the most important thing.”
Cornish speaks with passion, intelligence and with hope. Who knows? Perhaps his speech at the Calgary library will spur someone on to open a new personal frontier. Different from the type John Ware was instrumental in creating, but no less important.
“Other Black people started coming to Alberta because he was doing so well,” says Cornish. “John Ware showed that a Black person can do as much as anybody else.”
You can consider that a tradition that is being upheld, as Jon Cornish prepares for his upcoming speech in commemoration of Black History Month.
CORNISH WALKS THE WALK AS WELL
It’s not just all talk with Jon Cornish when it comes to community building.
Five years ago, he and his wife, Kiran, were looking for ways to build something from the ground up, something unifying. Kiran suggested that they launch a new foundation and Jon got to pounding the pavement.
“I started walking up to well-dressed Black individuals on the street and got them to come out to a meeting,” recalls Cornish, adding that having a well-known face helped him get people’s attention. “People knew me so it was easier to put everybody in one room.”
“And that was the start of the group that would form the Calgary Black Chambers,” he says.
The Calgary Black Chambers mission statement declares that its goals are “to increase Black leadership capacity, and uplift BIPOC culture throughout Calgary by community volunteering and providing scholarships for our future generations.”
According to the foundation’s website, the organization has mentored more than 300 students and raised more than $200,000.00 for scholarships since its inception.
The group’s second annual Black History Month Dinner will be held February 9.