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A series of fortunate events at Amber Valley

Senator Paula Simons meets Amber Valley descendants at just the right time

ATHABASCA — It was a series of very fortunate events leading to a coincidence which must have astronomical odds during the filming of a video about Amber Valley last summer. 

In 2021, Alberta Senator Paula Simons was asked at the last minute to give a statement for Black History Month and used information her daughter had about Effie Jones and Jones’s husband Sohan Singh Bhullar. 

“My daughter is a playwright, and she'd done a series of radio plays set in Edmonton in the 1930s, they’re a noir detective series, and she had made Effie Jones and Sohan Singh Bhullar characters,” Simons said in a Feb. 10 interview. 

So, Amber Valley, the largest and most northern Black settlement in Alberta, located 24 kilometres east of Athabasca, was on her mind as summer rolled around and a short video was made, one of a series of videos on her YouTube channel depicting life in the province. 

“My family has a cabin in Westlock County just off the Athabasca Landing Trail, and we were using it as a base to go out and do a bunch of videos,” she said. “We did videos about local farm production; we went to Legal and did a little piece about the Legal murals and so it was not so far to just scoot up.” 

With the help of two staff, Dina Dong and Ameya Charnalia, over the course of a week, they shot video about the Edmonton Fringe Festival, Farmers’ Markets, and the Francophone history of Alberta. 

“And then this one, which we sort of saved because I thought, ‘Alright, we'll save this one for Black History Month,’” Simons said. 

Simons has been comfortable telling a story as a journalist for 30 years, 23 of them with the Edmonton Journal, winning awards for her investigations of the Alberta welfare system, coverage of the Fort McMurray wildfire, reporting about the Fallen Four and more. 

“Towards the end of my time with the Journal, they were doing the Postmedia pivot to video,” she said. “I was asked to make a couple of videos a week for the paper and so I was sort of in that mindset.” 

So, Simons, Dong, and Charnalia packed up and drove north to Athabasca, turned right when they got to the Athabasca River and headed out to Amber Valley to talk more about Effie Jones and Sohan Singh Bhullar, never expecting the day would come full circle to the speech she had made several months before. 

“And then the most amazing thing was that we arrived, we were walking around the cemetery and up pulled the Wolska-Chaney family,” said Simons. “That was not planned.” 

The normally quiet Jordan W. Murphy cemetery was about to become the location of a galaxy of stars aligning because the Wolska-Chaney family came looking for their great, great grandmother Dehlia Jones. 

“And so, here's this moment, just by chance they happen to be there when we were there and just by chance, they happen to be descendants (of) a different branch of the same family tree that I had spoken about in the Senate,” said Simons. “It was a very kismet kind of moment.” 

And she was able to show the family some photos they had never seen before because after the Senate speech descendants of Effie and Bhullar had sent her pictures and documents. 

“I said, ‘Dehlia Jones! I know Dehlia Jones! Dehlia Jones’ photo is in my phone,’” she said. “And they'd never seen that picture before; a picture of their great, great grandmother (and) great, great grandfather. I only had those pictures because of the earlier speech I'd given about Effie Jones and Sohan Singh Bhullar.” 

As a journalist she knew the video would be better with a descendant in it but until that moment had been unable to find someone to fill the role.

“To have arrived at the cemetery feeling like oh, gosh, I tried to find an Amber Valley descendant, the two-hour drive, it was really hot that week, it was smoky, we didn't have anybody,” said Simons. "And then there they were, this picture-perfect family.” 

The ‘Return to Amber Valley’ video is five-and-a-half minutes long and Simons chose to do the series to celebrate Alberta and open a discussion about the province where she was born, raised, and lives. 

“I want to celebrate the authentic diversity of this place and so I really hope that my video series Uniquely Albertan and that my podcast Alberta Unbound and my columns in Alberta Views go some way to explaining the complexity of this place,” she said. 

"I want them to be a conversation I'm having with Albertans, but I also want them to be a rebuttal and a response to people's misunderstandings and misapprehensions about Alberta and I really want to celebrate the province I love and the province where my roots run deep.” 

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