Since the beginnings of transatlantic settlement, Black people have lived in Canada, although only a few arrived directly from their ancestral homeland in Africa. History says that the earliest arrivals of African Canadians were slaves brought from New England or the West Indies.
But between 1763 and 1865, most black people who migrated to Canada were fleeing slavery in the U.S. Most of them entered Canada to start a new life and have a brighter future but they probably didn’t know that they would eventually make a huge impact in the country in almost all fields.
Be it entertainment, arts, technology and politics, Black Canadians did the incredible, and so did James Mink.
Mink’s father was an enslaved man identified only as “Mink”, who accompanied his owner, United Empire Loyalist Johan Herkimer into what became known as Ontario in 1784. It was here in Ontario that a young Mink, along with his brother, George, started hotels, liveries and coach services. Born in 1811, Mink was the youngest of 11 children and with his business acumen, he knew he could make it despite being the child of an enslaved man, and so did he.
Having worked with his brother for some years in Ontario, Mink moved to Toronto, Canada, in the 1840s, a time the city was alive with many opportunities for Black people. George stayed behind in Kingston but the two brothers still worked together, becoming one of the wealthiest Black people in Canada in the 1850s.
Mink and his brother started the first public transit system in their respective cities. With the two knowing how to drive a wagon, they transported travelers between Toronto and Kingston, which was then the capital city of Upper Canada. Their hotels, liveries and coach services thrived and Mink soon became a self-made millionaire in the 1850s at a period many Black folks in Canada were not getting jobs.
An account states that Mink owned the Mansion Inn and Livery on Adelaide Street as well as stables on Terauley and Queen streets. Becoming popular and earning the trust of many Toronto residents, the city council even used his livery stables for its horses.
During an election in Toronto, his hotel was also used as a voting station and the mayor even hired his coach service for his inauguration in the 1850s. What is more, his stagecoach service carried passengers as well as mail between Toronto and Kingston in the late 1850s.
A wealthy Mink then went on to marry a white Irish immigrant known as Elizabeth, with reports saying that he gave a hefty $10,000 dowry to her family to obtain her hand.
But with all his wealth, Mink couldn’t do anything to prevent what happened to his daughter, Mary. At 17, Mary had hoped to continue her education and become a teacher, but his father wanted her married instead.
“At that time, 1852, all the fathers were arranging marriages,” said Dorothea G. Petrie, executive producer of Captive Heart: The James Mink Story, a film made about the life of Mink.
According to Petrie, Mink “decided he wanted Mary to a have a good marriage. And he also felt she should marry a white man because she would have an easier life.”
Mink offered $10,000 to any a white man who would marry his daughter. A U.S. businessman William Johnson accepted the offer, married Mary and moved her to the U.S., only for Mary to realize that Johnson wasn’t as charming as she thought.
According to reports, Johnson sold her into slavery to a Virginian tobacco plantation owner. In the Captive Heart movie, Mink pretended to be his wife’s slave, and the couple traveled to the American South where they rescued Mary and other slaves.
However, archives show that Mink never traveled to the American South but rather got British government officials to buy his daughter back on his behalf. In fact, some researchers even doubt that Mary was ever sold as a slave.
But what history seems to agree on is the fact that Mary did return to Toronto, where she gave birth to a son and lived on a Mink family farm on Don Rd. and Danforth Rds. area, according to Toronto census records from the 1860s.
Mink and his family were doing very well then until an arsonist set fire to his hotel and livery. Since there was no insurance coverage then, Mink lost everything and later died in 1866 at the age of 55. At the time of his death, the powerful and proud man was living alone near what is currently Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto.