Canadian Slavery

It’s time for Canadians to grow up. Whether living in a big city or a one-Tim’s town, too many Canadians seem to share a warped vision of our past that allows us to press our noses against the shop window that is the United States and tsk, tsk away with smug condescension. Forget it. Let’s take one of many points that could wipe the smirks from our faces – slavery.

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photo from http://www.bccns.com

Slavery is as old as humanity itself. Slaves built the pyramids. The ancient Greeks, who gave birth to our western civilization, owned slaves. The idea of enslaving Africans is credited to a Catholic priest who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. The priest was sickened by Columbus’ ongoing slaughter of Haitians who had been enslaved to search for gold. He believed that Africans would be better able to do the job.

The first Africans arrived in the West Indies on Portuguese ships in 1518. They had been ripped from their homes and stripped of their families, religion, names, and humanity. Fifteen million followed. The Portuguese word for black is negro.

European notions of inhumanity soon found their way to what would become Canada. The first slaves were Native people. Explorer Jacques Cartier even kidnapped Iroquois chief Donnaconna and several of his people and toured them through France like a circus act. Most died of European diseases and none saw their homes or families again.

The first African slave to be settled in Canada was a six-year-old from Madagascar. He arrived in 1628 as a cabin boy on a pirate ship captained by the ruthless English rogue David Kirke. Kirke captured Quebec City in a violent raid, and then sold it back to France four years later with the boy part of the bargain. He was purchased by a French clerk and then a Jesuit priest who renamed him Olivier Le Jeune.

Despite the fact that slavery had been abolished in France, Quebec governor Jean Talon pressured King Louis XIV to continue the practice of slavery in Quebec. Slaves were purchased in Africa, the West Indies, and the United States, and were owned by nearly all of the business and political elite as well as the leaders of the colony’s Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican Orders.

The Seven Years War – French Indian War if you are American – led to the fall of Quebec to Britain in 1759. The articles of capitulation guaranteed the continuation of slavery in the colony. With the world war finally over and Britain stuck with Quebec – it had unsuccessfully tried to swap it for Guadeloupe but that’s another story – the newly appointed British governor James Murray sent a message to New York asking for more slaves to become fieldworkers and domestic servants.

Slavery was also common in the Maritime colonies. They were used to build Halifax in 1749. The growing city became a centre for the Maritime slave trade, with public auctions turning tidy profits. The only known opposition to slavery came from Halifax’s small Quaker community, but it was ignored.

The American Revolution brought thousands of Loyalists northward. The British government offered them and war veterans land, assistance, and permission to bring their slaves. About 10% the Loyalists fleeing to Nova Scotia were slaves or free Blacks. Slaves also moved with their owners to what would become Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario.

The powerful Mohawk leader Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) had fought for the British. He was rewarded with 30 African slaves. He brought them when settling his people on a huge land grant along Ontario’s Grand River. Slaves helped build the settlement that is now Brantford and then a handsome home near what is now Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington. Other slaves constructed many of the fine stone buildings that still stand in Belleville, Kingston, Montreal, and elsewhere.

The War of 1812 saw the United States, as it had during the Revolution attempt to take British North America. Towns were burnt and civilians murdered in what became a brutal war. To disrupt American invasion plans, Upper Canadian Attorney General John Beverley Robinson declared that any slave arriving from the United States to Canada would be freed. An all-Black regiment was formed and Black soldiers joined a number of other British regiments. About 50 Black soldiers served at the decisive battle at Queenston Heights. About 2,000 escaped slaves fought their way to Canada during and in the years following the war.

The British government banned slavery in 1833. Nearly all British North American slaves had already been freed. However, racist laws and segregation practices remained. Segregated churches, schools, restaurants and public services were commonplace in Canada until the 1960s. Segregation laws died in Canada at about the same time as in the American South with racist attitudes, of course, more difficult to kill.

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Canadians deserve to feel proud of their history that, despite the despicable way in which too many of us learned it teems with fascinating stories and colourful characters. However, in looking at how the United States and other countries are still dealing with race and being shocked when a disturbingly racist event occurs in our backyard, it would serve us well to remember that while we have come a long way, there’s a long road before us. On our journey toward becoming the type of people we like to think we have always been, we would be well served to recall that our hands are not clean.

If you enjoyed this, please share it with others. You might also be interested in my book Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism – find it at Amazon or Chapters or at http://www.johnboyko.com

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3 thoughts on “Canadian Slavery

  1. John – this is awesome history, well told. It should be required reading in every public school during Black History Month. I sent the link to our triplet grandkids in Nova Scotia (11 yrs) to add to their education experience. Also sent it along to friends in Gaithersburg MD. He is a 54th Mass re-enactor and helps put out the message to schools in the area. Both he and his wife were in Alabama (very near Selma) studying during the Selma crisis we are seeing so much about these days. It is something that they will never forget. Thank you for telling us a bit more about our history!

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