They came in great, dusty columns trudging north; the persecuted refugees of a new country founded on freedom and liberty.
These were the United Empire Loyalists; the thousands of men, women and children loyal to the Crown who were forced into Canada by the victory of rebel forces in the American War of Independence. “Neither confiscation of their property, the pitiless persecution of their kinsmen in revolt, nor the galling chains of imprisonment could break their spirits,” reads a stirring monument to the loyalists in Hamilton, Ont.
And they brought their slaves with them.
When Canadian historians talk about Africans coming here after the American Revolution, they generally focus on the Black Loyalists; freed slaves escaped from American masters who were emancipated by the British and settled in Nova Scotia. But not every African brought to Canada after the Revolutionary War was free.
In the official Act of Parliament that welcomed white Loyalist refugees to British North America, they were permitted to bring along “any negroes” in their possession without paying duty to the Crown. As many as 2,500 Black slaves were brought to Nova Scotia, instantly making it the most slaveholding territory in both the Maritime colonies and New England. “During the late 18th century practically every county in mainland Nova Scotia had slaves, and this story remains to be told,” wrote historian Ken Donovan in 2014.
In historical accounts of North American chattel slavery, Canada usually appears only as an enlightened Eden. We were the final stop of the Underground Railroad, and the place that legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass called “the real Canaan of the American bondmen,” a reference to the biblical Promised Land.
But if Canada came off as the good guy during the United States’ great reckoning with slavery, it’s only because British North America had undergone its own nightmare of human bondage. Only a generation before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Canada had been a place where human beings were listed for sale in newspapers, where enslaved children were given as gifts, where authorities hunted down fugitive slaves and where the murder and rape of enslaved Africans was endorsed by the Crown.
The Canadian slave most well-known to history is probably a young woman named Angélique, who was tortured and hanged in 1734 following accusations that she had set fire to a large section of Montreal. The man who pulled the lever that caused Angélique to plunge to her death was himself a slave.
James McGill, founder of McGill University, owned three black slaves and two Indigenous children. Marguerite d’Youville, the first Canadian-born Catholic Saint, likely owned an enslaved domestic servant. When the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant was corralling Indigenous armed resistance to the American Revolution, he owned as many as 40 black slaves.
The Montreal Gazette published ads of slaves for sale, or offering rewards for escaped slaves. “FOR SALE: A Young healthy Negro Wench between 12 and 13 years of age, lately from Upper Canada, where she was brought up,” reads one from 1795.
The first Canadian slave is generally believed to have come to Quebec City in 1628. Soon, New France was actively encouraging the use of both African and Indigenous slavery to build and serve the growing colony. Later, after the conquest of New France in the Seven Years’ War, Canada became the westernmost outpost of a British Empire that, for a time, was the world’s leading slave trader.
The arrival of unchallenged English rule to the continent after the Seven Year’s War arguably made the lot of Canada’s slaves worse, at least on paper. While French law had generally recognized slaves as humans of diminished rights, under English law any slave within Canada was mere property: Rape, murder, and assault did not apply, as the law required those offences to be committed against someone who was legally considered a human being.
Slavery in the British Empire would be dramatically reversed in the early 19th century thanks to one of the most remarkable campaigns of political activism. After only a generation of coordinated boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, and other political pressure tactics, a nation of slave traders transformed into one that now saw anti-slavery as proof of its national superiority. By the 1840s, Great Britain was spending half of its naval budget on anti-slavery patrols off the West African Coast.
In Canada, the march towards emancipation was jumpstarted three decades earlier, largely due to the grassroots actions of the country’s own black community. In 1793, witnesses on the streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake saw the troubling scene of a screaming woman named Chloe Cooley being violently forced onto a boat by a group of armed men taking her to the United States. The action was perfectly legal; Cooley was owned by one of the men, United Empire Loyalist Adam Vrooman, who was well within his rights to beat her into compliance and sell her south. What made the incident noteworthy, however, was Cooley’s fierce and dogged resistance.
The incident prompted Peter Martin, a free Black Loyalist and veteran of the Revolutionary War, to appeal to Upper Canadian authorities. Appearing before an executive council whose names now adorn streets and landmarks across Canada (John Graves Simcoe, William Osgoode, Peter Russell), Martin told of the “violent outrage” committed against Cooley by men who intended to “deliver her against her will to persons unknown.”
What Martin would help inspire was the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada. Although it ranks as the first piece of anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire, it was by no means a radical document. The act enshrined the legality of slavery, but banned the importation of slaves and set out a program to free the children of Canadian slaves once they had reached age 25.
Nevertheless, it began the slow fizzling out of an institution that would be definitively ended with London’s passage of the 1833 Slave Emancipation Act. Notably, although the act offered compensation to any slaveowner who had seen their slaves freed by the Crown, not one request came in from British North America.
By the time the question of slavery had begun to burst into open conflict in the United States by the 1850s, the institution was already so far in Canada’s rearview mirror that British North America had shifted quite comfortably into a haven for abolitionist sentiment. Abolitionist Harriet Tubman was able to live quite openly in what is now St. Catharines, Ont., despite her actions of shepherding fugitive slaves to freedom being considered a federal crime in the United States.
Vocal abolitionists, meanwhile, were at the pinnacle of Canadian political power. At the same time as he was helping to negotiate the creation of modern Canada, publisher George Brown was publicly accusing the United States of perpetrating the “sum of all human villainies.”
Some Canadians sympathized with the seceded South during the American Civil War, seeing them as a fellow victim of American aggression. But Brown had no patience for this, saying in an 1863 speech that Canadians had a moral duty to back the pressing of Civil War in the United States until the stain of slavery was incontrovertibly abolished. “I do most heartily rejoice, for the cause of liberty, that Mr. Lincoln did not patiently acquiesce in the dismemberment of the republic,” he said.
While slavery and its legacies play a massive role in the American story, its presence in Canada is virtually unknown. Until recent years, one of the only dedicated books about slavery in Canada was the 1960 tome Two centuries of slavery in French Canada. Meticulously researched by the renowned historian Marcel Trudel, it upended a popular conception among Quebecers that slavery, if it existed, had been forced upon them by their English conquerors. The book was so controversial in Quebec that Trudel was compelled to leave the province for a teaching position in Ottawa, according to novelist Lawrence Hill.
It’s perhaps easier for Canadians to overlook its slavery past because human bondage never became a defining practice the way it did in the United States. “Canada might not have been a slave society — that is, a society whose economy was based on slavery—but it was a society with slaves,” wrote Canadian historian Afua Cooper in her 2006 book, The Hanging of Angelique, a chronicle of Canadian slavery.
There are estimates that over the 200 years of Canadian slavery, between 4,000 and 8,000 Africans and Indigenous people (known as “panis”) were held in bondage. Even at the height of slavery in Montreal, slaves constituted only 0.01 per cent of the population. By contrast, at the outbreak of the American Civil War, slaves constituted 40 per cent of the population of the Confederate States of America.
The result was a society and economy wholly geared towards slavery in ways that never quite materialized in Canada. Full-time bounty hunters roaming the countryside for fugitive slaves, columns of shackled men and women being marched into frontier settlements, vast plantations of slaves overseen by whip-wielding overseers; these were all scenes distinct to the territories south of the Mason Dixon line.
But perhaps our biggest contrast with the United States is that most African-Canadians do not have a direct familial link to Canadian slavery.
The civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. grew up only 90 minutes away from the plantation where his great-grandfather had been held as a slave. Oprah Winfrey can trace her last name to Absalom Winfrey, a man who had purchased her great-great-grandfather Constantine. The slave ancestors of basketball star Michael Jordan lay buried in unmarked graves on Georgia plantations.
But in Canada, the ancestors of most African-Canadians arrived in the country long after abolition. There are 1.2 million Black Canadians by last count, 50 per cent of whom are first-generation immigrants. For most Black Canadians, any slave ancestors were held in Jamaica or Mississippi, not in Montreal or Kingston.
There are indeed slaves in the family tree of Viola Desmond, the Canadian anti-segregation activist featured on the $10 bill, but they were owned in Virginia. “We have a duty to remember slavery, but it is not an identity, and we cannot let slavery define Black history in Canada,” reads a 2020 pamphlet on Canadian slavery by the Quebec artist and author Webster.
What has become definitive of Canadian slavery, however, is Canadians’ willingness to forget it ever happened. Afua Cooper has famously called it “Canada’s best-kept secret.”
As early as 1833, books on Canadian history began to contain the falsehood that “slavery never tarnished the Canadas,” according to Done With Slavery, a 2010 study of Montreal’s black community.
The issue was even put before a US court in the 1850s, when the four adult children of a Missouri slave woman asserted they were free because their mother had been born in Canada. Incredibly, the trial featured a string of former Quebecers who swore under oath that they had never seen slavery on Canadian territory. “There was no other slavery there than the slavery of white people being hired to others … if slavery had existed there I should have known it,” testified one former Quebecer, as quoted in Done With Slavery.
In 1859, Jacques Viger, the first mayor of Montreal, felt so alarmed by the apparent erasure of Canadian slavery that he was compelled to publish a brief collection of historical documents proving that Canadians had indeed once held their fellow humans in bondage. One of the most obvious proofs was that in the 1763 terms dictating the conquest of New France, the British affirmed that “the negroes and panis of both sexes shall remain, in their quality of slaves.”
“Did slavery exist in Canada?” Viger wrote to his mid-19th century audience. “Yes, slavery existed in Canada.”
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