Slavery in Canada? I Never Learned That!

      28 Comments on 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 According to available historical documents, least 4,000 Africans were held in bondage for two centuries in the early colonial settlements of New France (Quebec), New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island,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).

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

  1. andrewdsmith

    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. Andrée Lévesque

    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

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  5. Loretta Penny

    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!

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  7. cee

    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.

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  10. Jeffrey Beuglet

    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

  11. Judy

    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!

  12. "Eyes of Fire"

    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.

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  14. alflex519

    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.

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  17. Rachel

    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?

  18. Natasha

    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.

  19. John

    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.

  20. Joe

    The country of Canada never had slaves. British north american colonies had slaves and the laws and rules that governed the british colonies were created by the government of the time. It’s important to teach history to canadians but what you advocate is altering history to suit your purpose. Slavery ended in what would become Canada by an act passed on the 28th of august 1833, the act came into effect on the 1st of august of the following year. Canada became a country on July 1st 1867 and since it’s impossible for a country that does not exist to pass laws since it’s government would not exist Canada could not have had slavery as it was abolished 34 years before the country existed during a time which the country was a british colony. So how about telling the truth and saying the British Colonies that would become Canada had slaves.
    On top of this, most of the slaves in the country were natives not blacks so claiming that it is a black history issue is nonsense. It’s a canadian history issue. Relegating any history of any of canada’s people is a form of segregation and is unacceptable in today’s society and the message you send by doing so is that those people are not the same or equal to the rest of those who live in this country.
    When I went to school we did learn things in history that had to do with non-white people in our history. Some examples are the underground railroad, the unimaginable and practical murder of asian people in the creation of the canadian rail system, the murder of numerous native people executed by giving them blankets infected with smallpox and many other things.
    Any gaps in Canadian history not taught in a standard canadian high school history class should not be fixed by segregating that history as separate from our history as a people. That is saying that our schools are not only racist, but refuse to change indicating that our school system is proud of that oversight and its clear message to those people that they do not count in our current society or count more then other people.
    The biggest gap in our history classes is the history and richness of its native peoples. You want to change things, get the native canadian people together with other informed people and have them and other cultures create a history program that covers all those things specific to canada and stop segregating our history based on which group you think is important. Imagine how far telling native Canadian people that you want their assistance in developing a history program that includes not only them but all people in our history would go in healing the relations between them and the rest of the country.

  21. Benjamin Clarke

    Black lives matter!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  22. xSam Waynex


    I know you wrote your comment a couple of years ago now, and you will more than likely never respond to what I am about to say. However, you are quite wrong in saying that slavery didn’t exist among the African peoples until it was already established by settlers. Ethiopia had a long history of slavery. Egypt was built in part by slaves. African tribes of Sub Saharan Africa would often times conquer other tribes and then keep the conquered tribes women as sex slaves, and the conquered tribes male children would be brought up as slave soldiers. To say that it was the settlers that basically gave them the idea is to show ignorance of actual history. The truth of the matter is that Africans sold other Africans into slavery to both White Europeans in the Atlantic Slave Trade, and to Arabs, and other Indo-Asian people in the Barbary Slave Trade. It doesn’t do anyone any good at all to try and paint one group as innocent until taught. Slavery was a world wide issue for a very long time, and slavery still exists in the Arab world, as well as in some African nations like Mauritania, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, and South Africa to this day.

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