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 According to available historical documents, least 4,000 Africans were held in bondage for two centuries in the early colonial settlements of New France (Quebec), New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island,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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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).
See the Slavery in Canada portal
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.
Richard Pierpoint was one of Canada’s early African community leaders. People of African descent were integral in fighting against slavery in Canada. Pierpoint’s story is told in the book A Stolen Life: Searching for Richard Pierpoint and he is the subject of a recent Heritage Minute:
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!
Here is my recently published article on the enslavement of Africans in Canada that offers more detail into the 206-year old institution: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/m/article/black-enslavement/