Slavery in Canada? I Never Learned That!

Slavery advertisement from Upper Canada Gazette, 10 February 1806.

Slavery advertisement from Upper Canada Gazette, 10 February 1806.

By Natasha Henry

The highly anticipated soon-to-be-released film, 12 Years a Slave, has garnered lots of attention following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film provides a shocking but realistic depiction of American slavery. It is based on the life of Solomon Northrup, a free man, who was kidnapped from his hometown in New York and sold south into slavery. Northup is able to regain his freedom after Canadian Samuel Bass, a carpenter from Prescott, Upper Canada, writes several letters to authorities in New York on his behalf. No doubt, Canadians are proud of the usual portrayal of us as crusaders against American slavery and wear the badge of “Canadians as abolitionists” with honour. Canadians readily embrace the notion of Canada as a haven for American freedom-seekers, who were escaping the same conditions that Solomon Northup endured. Once he was freed, Northrup himself helped fugitives flee to Canada, the “Promised Land.”

But what about Canadian slavery?

African slavery existed in the colonies of New France and British North America for over 200 years, yet there remains a profound silence in classrooms and teaching resources about Canada’s involvement in the African slave trade. According to available historical documents, least 4,000 Africans were held in bondage for two centuries in the early colonial settlements of New France (Quebec), New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Upper Canada (Ontario). Who were these men, women, and children who were deemed property? What were their personal experiences? Why was slavery legally and socially sanctioned for over 200 years?

Black slaves were used as a source of free labour to meet the demand of developing a new colony. They worked in towns and cities not only as domestic servants, but also as fur traders, miners, fishermen, wharf workers, and sailors. African slaves also worked in skilled jobs as blacksmiths, carpenters, wheelwrights, and coopers. They cleared and farmed land, and toiled in hotels, taverns and other businesses. Their coerced labour brought economic benefits to this country and helped to meet the needs of their local communities. Canada is further connected to the Transatlantic Slave Trade through the trading of products like timber and salted cod with slaveholding Caribbean colonies for slave produced goods such as rum, molasses, tobacco, and sugar.

Enslaved Africans were bought and sold through newspapers and at public auctions. Slaves were bequeathed in wills, passed down to family members along with furniture and farm animals. They were held by government officials, clergy, merchants, Natives, and United Empire Loyalists. Like their American counterparts, Canadian slaves faced inhumane treatment and were subject to whippings, jail sentences, and hangings at the gallows. To resist their conditions, many slaves fled to the free territories of the northern US in pursuit of their liberty.

Thirty-three years ago, historian James Walker rightfully pointed out in his A History of Blacks in Canada: a Study Guide for Teachers and Students that “[w]e cannot understand early pioneer history unless we acknowledge that slavery existed”. For the first time, the topic of enslavement has been included in the 2013 revised Ontario Social Studies, History, and Geography curriculum.

As part of a unique workshop series on strategies for teaching Black history in elementary and secondary grades, I will be offering an engaging workshop aimed to help educators incorporate the history of African enslavement in Canada into their history program. Participants will learn how to include the experiences of enslaved African men, women, and children into the curriculum in a meaningful way through the use of primary and secondary sources, as well as narratives. This workshop will also provide strategies for teaching this subject matter effectively and sensitively.

Why Teach about Canadian Slavery?

Incorporating African slavery in Canada provides a more complete historical narrative of the African Canadian pioneer perspective. It also places Africans here as early settlers who worked to build this nation alongside French and English colonists. Teaching and learning about Canadian slavery deflates the “not in our backyard’ myth that persists, the false notion that Canada did not enslave Africans like our American neighbours. It also sheds light on that fact that Canada was the first British colony to implement legislation to move towards abolition in 1793, which had tremendous implications for Black life and settlement during the 19th century. Equally important, the legacy of slavery through the persistence of racism could be identified and examined, with the aim of furthering social justice.

The workshop will be offered on two dates –  Wednesday, October 30 and Saturday, November 2, 2013 at the Comfort Hotel located at 445 Rexdale Blvd. (at Hwy. 27) in Toronto. Each workshop session is from 9:30am – 3:30pm.

Click here for more information. Don’t miss this incredible educational opportunity for classroom teachers, teacher candidates, and other educational workers! Space is limited. For more information on registration contact me at Register by Friday, October 25th.

Natasha Henry is a Black history curriculum specialist, educator, author, and historian. She is the author of Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada (Dundurn Press, 2010) and Talking About Freedom: Celebrating Emancipation Day in Canada (Dundurn Press, 2012).

24 thoughts on “Slavery in Canada? I Never Learned That!

  1. Talking about slavery in early Canadian history is important. It is also important to stress that Native slaves owned by whites (panis) were much more numerous than Black slaves. It should also be pointed out slavery in some First Nations societies was only eradicated by the threat of physical force by white imperialists. Young Canadians ought to know that after 1815 the Royal Navy played an important role in the battle against slavery via slave patrols in the Atlantic and actions against coastal First Nations in British Columbia. This historical information is important if students are to have a balanced view of “liberal imperialism” in the twenty-first.

    Please note that I’m certain not an advocate of the sort of “liberal imperialism” or “human rights imperialism” advocated by Michael Ignatieff in Empire Lite. However, I do think that the liberal imperialist case does need to be presented to history students.

  2. You are right: we should not forget. Yet, one tends to forget the colossal work on the subject on slavery in New France and Lower Canada by historian Marcel Trudel. He tracked down 4185 slaves between the end of the XVIIth century till 1834. Trudel has written three books on the subject including a dictionary of slaves and their owners in French Canada.
    Andrée Lévesque

  3. Black History is a fascinating subject that warrants ample time to explore. It is my hope that schools begin this journey in Africa and not from the United States into Canada. Students need a beginning, middle and end (still continuing) to best understand the struggles, achievements and perseverance of those of African heritage. To leave out the beginning would do a disservice to this subject. Our company has developed a presentation for schools (grade 5 and up) that is told from an African slave’s perspective. From Africa to Jamaica. Jamaica to Canada. We welcome the opportunity to share our highly researched presentation with your students!

  4. I am so happy to see that we are finally bringing this to the forefront. 50 years ago, as a child i remember finding in the ruins of my grandmother’s old house we’d torn down, a newspaper advertisement regarding the auction of a back buck and doe. It went on to describe their height, weight and physical condition. These went up for auction in Belleville Ontario. Later when on a few occassions I mentioned this during school, I was laughed at and told how very wrong I was. I almost was convinced! History is just that…history. Propaganda has or rather should not have any place in a history book.

  5. […] Slavery was practiced in Canada for over two centuries. Although ignorant about Canadian slavery, [we all] have been schooled in the Underground Railroad, which positioned white Canadians as liberators of African-American slaves. By the way, the Underground Railroad lasted from 1834 until 1865. How is it that we know about a three-decade window when enslaved Africans fled north from the U.S.A., but we know nothing about a two hundred plus year expanse of time when Canadians were slaving? […]

  6. Canadians have always had an arrogance about it & pointed the United States as the villain. I was born in Canada but I am now very proud American.
    Jeffrey Beuglet

  7. There are a lot of Canadians who don’t realize that there was slavery in Canada. On the most part it is hidden history. I never knew about it until just recent, but always wondered about it. We were never told. There was in the past segregation between us and the aboriginals, resident schools. Which I never really understood, it has taken a lifetime to understand. So, now the truth, the whole truth is coming out and it shows that Canada is as guilty as The US!

  8. History is BS if your not going to teach it correctly. First of all Slavery started with the Black Africans enslaving all other people of all complexions. That is FACT that should be made first and it should be pointed out they still to this very day which they are enslaving people. Secondly The original inhabitants of South America and North America were never of the black culture. North America was not discovered it already had original inhabitants living on it when people from across the sea came over to visit. The original inhabitants were not of the black culture they were of the First Nations people, Native American Indians as you know them as today. It was the original Black slave masters who sold black slaves to other countries in Africa and Europe who those countries people then sailed across the seas and stumbled upon North America. On their sea ships they brought their slaves from across sea. As those from across sea decided to try and take North America by force by killing the First Nations people and Native American Indians off their lands, the black slaves were promised if they help their slave masters to clear the lands of the original inhabitants that they will receive a piece of land for their own. Black slaves murder, raped, killed millions of First Nations people and Native American Indians, children, women and men of all ages without any remorse of hesitation in the promise to benefit in some piece of land which most never got. This is a fact all First Nations people and Native Americans have been saying from the very beginning when the Foreigners first arrived here on their sea ships with their Black slaves. The history needs to be taught is it’s true form of whet everyone done of their is no point in teaching it at all. The Black culture just like any other other culture is not guilt free and has no right to claim to be victims of North America when they are equally as guilty as the Foreigners. For the Black culture to think that they have more right or claim to the original inhabitants land is very insulting to the First Nations people and Native American Indians.

    The black culture who claim to be part of the Native American Indians and First Nations people blood lines of the past had only became a part of that culture through the meanings of murdering, raping and enslaving the First Nations people, Native America Indians. Which then proves the point the only way they ever became part is by what they had done to First Nations people, Native American Indians. Their would be Black Native American Indians if they hadn’t tried to clear the land of the original inhabitants.

    The black culture history needs to teach everything and stop hiding their own wrong doings that their own culture had done to other cultures since the beginning of time. Otherwise their culture history doesn’t need to be taught when it ignores the tragic impact it had on another culture like the original inhabitants of North America.

    Slavery is wrong no matter who done it, but it really is unethical to teach history if your not going to teach it correctly and with the truth! The black culture is not the only victims of slavery especially when it comes to North America! Especially when the Black slaves were just as guilty of enslaving other cultures throughout the entire world and how they still to this very day are in practice of it.

    Teach the history and write the history correctly or just don’t bother mentioning slavery at all if you can’t point the finger at everyone because no culture is guilt free from the truth of slavery all cultures are guilty of it and not one culture deserves more then any other.

    Yes it is horrible what human beings in the past endured and they are dead and gone which the only lesson and point that should be made to learned is slavery should never be allowed to happen again to anyone anywhere around the entire world.

    A Human being is a Human being no matter the skin complexion or the culture they were raised in, no matter what part the world they were born we are all the same. History should be teaching the future generations not to repeat mistakes of past generations.

  9. I am sorry “Eyes Of Fire”, your long, wordy statement is just inaccurate. Slave trading did not begin amongst Afican’s until those practices were already established by settlers. Please re-visit your history readings.

  10. Its says on the source of a slave advertisement that it was written on the 19th February. whereas on the citation it says 10th February. Why?

  11. It looks like a 9 but it’s a zero. In some cases ads were run for consecutive weeks and the original date of the ad would have appeared in later publications.

  12. No question that slavery existed in the early days of what would become Canada. Mostly as the article states the vast amount of slaves were held in the region of New France. Likely, this was because the price of slaves was beyond the financial wherewithal of most homesteaders in Upper Canada. What is not widely known is that majority of slaves in New France were natives.; native slaves (Panis) were preferred over African slaves. Let’s not forget those poor souls as well.

    Not an attempt to justify slavery, but rather only as a comparison, the 4,000 slaves in 200 years pales when compared to the US. I do believe that history no matter how disturbing should be taught and so should this. But it must also be taught along side the fight against slavery made by many prominent figures in Canada’s history. The British invited black slaves to leave the Revolutionary America and join the British Army in the Canada’s. Those that did were granted freedom and land. Governor Simcoe abhorred slavery and would not enact a law that would embed it in colonial law. He then fought a law to abolish slavery; unfortunately the outcome was compromise that provided only a partial release of those enslaved. The equivalent of a chief justice in Lower Canada (Quebec) refused as well to embed slavery in the local laws. Again not making excuses for an abhorrent institution that has left it black mark in Canadian history, but these attitudes by Simcoe and the judge in Lower Canada were revolutionary at the time for governing bodies.

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