Canada’s 150th birthday has prompted much looking back at our history. And one of the things Canadians have long been proud about is our status as the final stop on the Underground Railroad, a safe refuge for American slaves fleeing bondage.
This is true, and we should be proud. But let’s not be too proud — after all, the colonies that became Canada also had slavery for more than two centuries, ending only 30 years before U.S. President Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
When Britain took over New France, about 15 per cent of the colony was enslaved, or around 4,000 out of a population of 60,000. Two-thirds were indigenous slaves, known as Panis, and the other third African, who cost twice as much and were a status symbol. The British did not set them free.
“We don’t know about what happened before the Underground Railroad, which is that indigenous and black Canadians endured slavery.”
— Afua Cooper, historian
Unlike our American cousins, Canada did not itself end its slavery — in fact, in 1777 slaves began fleeing Canada for Vermont, which had just abolished slavery. It took Britain to finally outlaw the practice across their entire empire in 1834.
You may not have known this because, well, social media isn’t the only place where we curate our lives, humble-bragging our best moments and hiding our shames.
That’s how our history gets written, too.
Historian Afua Cooper at an opening of a black history exhibition at Black Creek Pioneer Village in 2003. (Photo: Getty)
“When you had Confederation in 1867, and a new narrative of the country was being written, [slavery] was one of the narratives that was forgotten,” explains historian Afua Cooper, author of The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal.
“The Underground Railroad is pushed to the forefront. It’s a triumphant story. It makes the Americans look bad and we’ve always had this posturing with regards to the Americans. But we don’t know about what happened before the Underground Railroad, which is that indigenous and black Canadians endured slavery, and that is the main page of the history before 1867.
“Slavery was the dominant condition of life for black people in this country for well over 200 years,” she adds. “So we have been enslaved for longer than we have been free.”
A watercolour of an overseer watching his slaves work. (Wikimedia Commons)
Historian George Tombs wrote Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Centuries of Bondage, the English translation of Marcel Trudel’s pioneering 1960 book on slavery in New France L’Esclavage au Canada Français. He agrees with Cooper’s critique of their “self-serving” peers, adding that Trudel was “pretty well blacklisted” by the Quebec nationalist establishment after publishing his book, because they were trying place the blame for slavery on the British.
“One of the key values that we are told Canadians promote nowadays is the diversity of the population, but the fact that the institution of slavery has been ignored for hundreds of years, minimized as much as possible and never taught in schools, means that somehow we are failing to uphold the value of diversity,” Tombs says.
“Slavery was the dominant condition of life for black people in this country for well over 200 years. So we have been enslaved for longer than we have been free.”
— Afua Cooper, historian
How many slaves were there all told?
“I have a PhD in history and I don’t know. I would say it was many, many more thousands than the 4,000 Marcel Trudeau describes in his book,” Tombs says, noting that number is just for New France, and does not include Nova Scotia, P.E.I. or Upper Canada.
He says people like former PQ Minister of Culture and historian Denis Vaugeois have argued “these weren’t really slaves, they were more like servants and they were treated like members of the family.” But while smaller-scale than other slave states, Canadian slavery was also brutal with beatings, rapes, dogs hunting down escapees when they fled their masters, and even executions.
“It’s totally bizarre to me that this has never been taught,” Tombs says.
Illustration of Olivier LeJeune from The Kids Book of Black Canadian History written by Rosemary Sadlier and illustrated by Wang Qijun (Kids Can Press Ltd., Â© 2003 Wang Qijun)
The first documented black slave arrived in Quebec city in 1628, just twenty years after the founding of New France. The boy, from Madagascar, was given the name Olivier Le Jeune. He was sold by a British commander to a French clerk.
He was about six-years-old.
“He died in slavery,” explains Cooper.
Though present from Olivier onward, slavery was officially illegal in French colonies until 1685 when King Louis XIV’s Code Noir allowed slavery for “economic purposes,” a policy extended to New France in 1689 in response to colonist complaints about a lack of servants.
By the end of the 17th century, enslaved people were being brought in by soldiers, government officials, and merchants who bought them in the New England colonies, Louisiana, the Carolinas and the West Indies.
A slave auction in America. (Photo: Getty)
This was because, as the Canadian Museum of History reports, “despite colonial officials’ oft-reiterated yearning to have African slaves imported to the colony, no slave ship ever reached the St. Lawrence valley.”
There had been a history of First Nations enslaving prisoners of war prior to colonialism, however they were often exchanged as part of alliance-making or to replace their own war dead. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights reports that “unlike Aboriginal peoples, Europeans saw enslaved people less as human beings and more as property that could be bought and sold. Just as importantly, Europeans viewed slavery in racial terms, with Aboriginals and Africans serving and white people ruling as masters.”
This was cemented in 1709 when the French king Louis XIV expanded slavery to “full proprietorship” in New France, meaning that any child born to a slave woman were also slaves that belonged to the master who could keep them, give them as gifts or sell them.
The Canadian Museum of History notes that earlier explorers like Jacques Cartier kidnapped indigenous people and brought them back to Europe, however the French colonists only began using indigenous slaves in the 1670s. Those numbers increased dramatically after 1709.
Incendiary: Marie-Joseph Angélique (kitlangfiberart.blogspot.com)
Arguably Canada’s most well-known slave is Marie-Joseph Angélique, who was hanged in 1734 for allegedly burning down most of what is now known as Old Montreal.
Born in Portugal, she was sold several times before winding up owned by a rich widow. Following an escape attempt with her white indentured servant lover, Angélique’s owner’s house caught fire, a conflagration that eventually spread to 46 buildings.
It is unclear if Angélique actually set the blaze, as her confession followed brutal torture. Nonetheless, she was paraded through town before being killed by an enslaved hangman and then burned on a pyre, as a warning to other slaves.
Angélique has since become a powerful symbol of black Canadian resistance, the focus of paintings, plays and poems as well Cooper’s book, which uses her story to reveal the broader, horrifying truth about Canada’s past.
“If you had money, you owned slaves,” Cooper says. “That’s how banal it was.”
“Slave ownership was found at every level of colonial Canadian society, whether French or English.”
— George Tombs, historian
The current-day downplaying of Canadian slavery becomes difficult to explain once you look at the numbers. While much less than in America or the Caribbean due to the lack of large-scale agriculture, slaves still represented a sizable percentage of the colonial population.
And while slavery started with the French, the only real difference after the Brits took over in 1760 was that the numbers of indigenous slaves declined, while black slavery increased, as was already the case in Nova Scotia.
Influential colonists owned slaves — Upper Canada administrator Peter Russell, McGill University founder James McGill, Father Louis Payet, the priest of Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieus and Reverend John Stuart, the first minister of the Church of England in Upper Canada — and ordinary people did, too.
“Slave ownership was found at every level of colonial Canadian society, whether French or English, working on farms, in bakery shops, working in leather tanning, slave orderlies working in hospitals, working for merchants, working in the fur trade as slave canoe paddlers for Scottish and French Canadian fur traders crisscrossing the country,” says Tombs.
Slavery buy and sell ads from the Upper Canada Gazette and Niagara Herald (Archives of Ontario)
Yep, even the initial economic reason for Canada’s founding is marred by slavery.
“We all know how important the fur trade was for the building of Canada and bringing Canada together,” says Tombs, “but how much do we know about the aboriginal slaves bought and sold as part of the fur trade? Not much.”
The next influx of slaves came in the wake of the 1776 American revolution. Many slaves escaped bondage to fight on the British side, and these black loyalists were allowed to move to Canada as free people (though they would face broken promises from the government, as well as discrimination and violence from the colonists).
The Matthew Elliott homestead, built in 1784, had 60 slaves living in huts behind this house (Photo: Parks Canada / Fort Malden NHS)
White loyalists moved north, too, and they brought an estimated 2,000 slaves with them to Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec, says Cooper.
One loyalist from Virginia, Matthew Elliot, became Canada’s largest slaveholder with 60 people enslaved on his property.
The Imperial Statute of 1790 made it official that new settlers could bring their slaves to Upper Canada. While it did also decree that children of slaves would be free at the age of 25, the life expectancy of a slave at that time was 20 to 25.
However, abolition efforts began in 1793 thanks to the efforts of then-Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. At the time, the National Post reports there were an estimated 500 slaves among 14,000 colonists, with another 200 to 300 slaves in Detroit, which was part of Upper Canada until 1796.
But Simcoe failed.
His “Act to Limit Slavery” only managed to ban the importation of new slaves. Thanks to lobbying by slave-owning politicians like Toronto founding father William Jarvis, the slaves already here remained in bondage and, in fact, the right to own human beings was reaffirmed.
“The provincial legislatures of Upper Canada and Lower Canada didn’t really want to disturb slave owners that much.”
— George Tombs, Historian
A citizen’s petition by Joseph Papineau was a similar attempt in Lower Canada to preserve slavery, but no measures were passed, though a judge named James Monk did manage to use a legal technicality to stop escaped slaves from being forcibly returned to their masters.
Eventually, Tombs says, “the institution of slavery was allowed to expire by itself because the provincial legislatures of Upper Canada and Lower Canada didn’t really want to disturb slave owners that much. The thing that I found very striking about the parliamentary debates, such as they were, was … how very little they thought to uphold principals of liberty and justice for the slave population.
“Democracy has been for some and not for all,” he adds, “and it still is in many ways. The very privileged role that white Canadians have enjoyed is still maintained in the world today.”
A painting named The Underground Railroad by Charles T. Webber (Photo: Getty)
Though the Underground Railroad began bringing escaped slaves in 1815, it didn’t really take off until well after Canadian slavery came to a close in 1833 when Britain banned it across the empire.
And it’s not like white supremacy went away along with slavery.
Indigenous people were pushed onto reserves and forbidden to leave without a government-issued “Indian Pass” until the early 1940s, and not allowed to vote until 1960. Their children were taken away to residential schools and/or given to white families for decades after that.
“Slavery was the context in which current race relations were created.”
— Afua Cooper, Historian
Black Canadians, meanwhile, faced race riots and segregation well into the 20th century — segregated schools arrived right along with the Underground Railroad and last one only closed in 1983 — and are still fighting discrimination today.
“We are dealing with some of the legacies,” says Cooper. “I would submit that within the western psyche, black people are still seen as property, black people are still seen as inferior. That’s why we can have young black teenage men being shot in the back by police and murdered and cops are exonerated. The utter carelessness with which we treat black lives — the whole Black Lives Matter movement comes from that realization — that disdain comes from history.
“Slavery was the context in which current race relations was created, which is black inferiority and white superiority,” she concludes.
“So it was abolished, but did we abolish attitudes?”