More often than not, when Canadians discuss slavery, they like to speak at length about the role they played in the mid-1800s providing a safe haven for enslaved people fleeing plantations in the southern U.S. via the Underground Railroad. And though the story of the Underground Railroad is a significant moment in Canadian history that lasted for about 30 years, one must also not forget that for more than two hundred years, slavery happened in Canada, too.
Curiously, authorities in the country, including edifices and museums say little of the indigenous people and Africans they enslaved, and how they benefited from the inhumane practice. As records show, slavery in what is now known as Canada began long before European traders and colonists arrived.
At the time, indigenous people enslaved prisoners taken in war, but the Europeans introduced another form of slavery, where individuals were viewed as property that could be bought and sold. In other words, the buying, selling and enslavement of Black people were practiced by Europeans in New France — the first major settlement in what is now Canada — in the early 1600s until the territory was conquered by the British in 1759.
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At the time the British took over, it is documented that out of a population of 60,000, around 4,000 were enslaved — about 7 percent of the colony. Many of them were indigenous slaves, usually known as Panis, and enslaved Black people who were largely transported there during the transatlantic slave trade.
Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to North America, the Caribbean and South America, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Only about 10.7 million survived the dreadful journey under bondage in slave ships, and for a two-century period, settlers in what would eventually become Canada were involved in the trade.
Indeed, when the British took over New France, it did continue with slavery and even renamed New France territory (now Canada) as British North America. Soon, enslaved Black people replaced indigenous slaves. However, these enslaved Black people made up a much smaller proportion of the population as compared to the United States, and some historians including Denis Vaugeois have even argued “these weren’t really slaves, they were more like servants and they were treated like members of the family.”
Nevertheless, slavery in what is now Canada was just as barbarous as in other states. As a matter of fact, slaves were beaten, sexually abused, or even killed when they tried to escape. “Most wills from the time treated enslaved people as nothing more than property, passing on ownership of human beings the same as they would furniture, cattle or land,” writes the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Just as experienced in other states, enslaved people in British North America presently Canada also rebelled against their conditions. In 1777, a number of them escaped from the territory into the state of Vermont, which had just abolished slavery. In British North America, however, slavery continued. Influential colonists including McGill University founder James McGill, Upper Canada administrator Peter Russell and Father Louis Payet, the priest of Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieus, owned slaves. 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,” said historian George Tombs.
“We all know how important the fur trade was for the building of Canada and bringing Canada together but how much do we know about the aboriginal slaves bought and sold as part of the fur trade? Not much.”
Sadly, even when enslaved Black people were freed, they usually had to work as indentured servants (doing unpaid labor) for years in exchange for food, shelter and transport.
By the late 1700s, large groups of Black settlers, mainly former enslaved people, started arriving in Nova Scotia, Canada after the American Revolution. Scores of them were promised land and freedom in the province but things went sour when they arrived and had to face white settlers who viewed them as inferior.
Thus, many Black settlers moved towards the margins of society and began building vibrant communities. It was during this same period — on March 25, 1807 — that the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire of which British North America was a part. Slavery in itself came to an end in 1834 giving rise to the Underground Railroad movement where Canada became a safe haven for runaway slaves.
To date, amid concerns of discrimination against Black Canadians, the country usually prefers to showcase its role in the Underground Railway rather than its history of slavery. But things are likely to change as Charmaine Nelson, a former art history professor at McGill University, is launching the first research institute in the country dedicated to the study of Canadian slavery.
The Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery will be established at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax.
“The impact of Dr. Nelson’s work to uncover, preserve, and share the difficult history of Transatlantic slavery will start here in Halifax — a city that continues to confront systemic racism built on generations of discrimination — and it will ripple across the country and around the world,” Andy Fillmore, the Liberal MP for Halifax, said.