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

The Slave Who Helped Create Two Countries and Wreck a Third

John Anderson was born property. At 29 he was a prisoner. He was seated in Toronto’s Osgood Hall while outside on the chilly morning of December 15, 1860 stood fifty armed police officers. A company of the Royal Canadian Rifles stood with muskets ready and bayonets menacingly attached. All were prepared for the demonstration promised and the riot expected should the court decision go as the crowd of two hundred or so Anderson supporters feared. Stretchers were piled against a wall, ready to haul away the injured and killed.

His adventure had begun seven years before. He had run when life as a Missouri slave had become too much. It was too much to watch his mother being beaten and then sold. It was too much to lose his name. It was too much to be kept from living with his wife and child. It was too much to be denied opportunity; to be denied his very humanity. And so he ran. In running he had committed a crime for he robbed his owner by stealing himself.

On the third day of his flight, Anderson accidently stumbled upon a White farmer named Seneca Digges and four of his slaves. They gave chase and for thirty minutes ran through woods and fields until Anderson encountered Digges. Digges raised either a cane or a tree branch and they fell together. Anderson’s knife plunged three times into Digges’ chest and back.

Dirty, exhausted and starving, Anderson slowly snuck his way north. When he encountered a White man who offered a meal and bed for the night Anderson boarded the Underground Railroad. A few weeks later he was over the Detroit River and in Windsor, Canada West. With the help of a thriving Black community he learned to read and do sums and within a few years he had learned masonry, begun his own business and purchased a house.

Anderson confided to a friend that he had stabbed a man while fleeing. He was betrayed and arrested. A judge informed Missouri officials that Anderson was in a Brantford jail. Soon, officials from the Missouri governor to the American Secretary of State were writing to Canadian and British leaders demanding his extradition.

Anderson had moved from slave to symbol. Southerners had grown enraged with the Canadian Black communities and the abolitionists that enabled them. For generations they had insisted that slaves were unable and unwilling to work, read, or succeed on their own. And yet, up in Canada, ex-slaves were illuminating the lie that was the foundation of their economic, political and social ethos. The Underground Railroad, Northern abolitionists, and Canada had in this way become part of the Southern impetus to insist on State Rights and contemplate a divorce from the American state.

If Anderson could be extradited then the Canadian Black communities and the Underground Railroad itself could be destroyed with slave catchers able to grab prey in Canadian cities as easily and legally as if they were Boston or New York. A New Orleans attorney wrote, “We are going to have Anderson by hook or by crook; we will have him by fair means or foul; the South is determined to have that man.”

John Anderson

At that time, Canadians were debating their future as a British colony, a new country, or perhaps an American state. Meanwhile, a growing number of influential British leaders were advocating cutting ties with the increasingly expensive and bothersome Canada. The Anderson case led other Brits to argue that there was a moral issue at stake that trumped political concerns. They advocated intervening in the case even if it kept Canada colonial and threatened war with the United States.

The court decided that Anderson must be returned to Missouri but there was an appeal. American Secretary of State Lewis Cass wrote a letter insisting that Anderson be immediately sent south. British Prime Minister Palmerston demanded that Anderson be dispatched to Britain. Canada’s Attorney General summoned the temerity to say no to both. His name was John A. Macdonald, soon afterwards, an independent Canada’s first prime minister. He quietly covered all Anderson’s legal bills.

Sir John A Macdonald

John A. Macdonald

Finally, after weeks of legal wrangling and insults across the ocean, over the Canadian border and back and forth across the Mason-Dixon Line, the time had come for a final decision. British, American and Canadian reporters were huddled in the imposing courtroom as police and soldiers outside nervously held their weapons. Three justices argued that the Missouri writ had charged Anderson with killing and that there was no such crime – the only charge available was murder. On a technicality, Anderson was free to go.

Anderson rose unsteadily to his feet and beamed a huge smile. In a quiet voice he whispered, “Thank you, gentlemen—thank you, your lordships.” The gavel fell and there was a roar of shouting and applause from those in the courtroom and from the crowd shivering outside in the snow.

Canadian reaction was ecstatic for it was a three-way victory. Anderson was free. Canada had told the United States to forget its designs its Black citizens and to respect its borders. It told Britain to mind its own business. Macdonald pushed and in March 1862 the British government passed the Habeas Corpus Act rendering it illegal for Britain to issue writs in Canada. A major step toward Canadian nationhood had been taken.

Canadian and American abolitionists quickly had Anderson delivering speeches to educate and raise funds. By June, he was in England delivering more speeches. His largest audience was at Exeter Hall, where the newly formed John Anderson Society welcomed six thousand to see him.

Meanwhile, Fort Sumter had been pummelled and Bull Run bullets had screamed. By 1862, the American Civil War was grinding into its second year. Anderson was no longer needed to make a point or further a cause. Without consulting him, British abolitionists arranged for him to be given land in and passage to Liberia.

On December 22, 1862, Anderson delivered his last speech. As always, he ended with the mournful hope that he might again see his family. The next day he was aboard a steamer bound for Cape Palmas. There are no records of him in Liberia, nor of his wife Maria or their child in Missouri. They became as lost to history as they were to each other. However, John Anderson’s legacy lives on in the America that was torn in two and Confederacy and Canada he had inadvertently, with his primal desire to be free, helped to create.

To discover more about John Anderson and Canada’s role in the American Civil War please check out Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation, available online and, if you can still find one, book stores everywhere. http://www.amazon.ca/Blood-Daring-Canada-Fought-American/dp/0307361446