Slavery in Canada
|By country or region|
|Opposition and resistance|
Slavery in what now comprises Canada existed until 1833, when slavery was officially abolished. Some slaves were of African descent, but most were aboriginal (typically called panis, likely a corruption of Pawnee). Slavery within Canada's current geography was practised primarily by Aboriginal groups. While there was never any significant Canadian trade in African slaves, native nations frequently enslaved their rivals and a very modest number (sometimes none in a number of years) were purchased by colonial administrators (rarely by settlers) until 1833, when the slave trade was abolished across the British Empire.
A few thousand African slaves were forcibly brought as chattel by Europeans to New France, Acadia and the later British North America (see chattel slavery) during the 17th century. They were house servants and farm workers. There were no large-scale plantations in Canada, and therefore no large-scale plantation slave work forces of the sort that existed in most European colonies in the Americas, from Virginia to the West Indies to Brazil.
Because early Canada's role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade was so minor, the history of slavery in Canada is often overshadowed by the more tumultuous slavery practised elsewhere in the Americas - most famously in the American South, and infamously in the colonial Caribbean. Afua Cooper states that slavery is, "Canada's best kept secret, locked within the National closet."
Under indigenous rule
Slave-owning people of what became Canada were, for example, the fishing societies, such as the Yurok, that lived along the Pacific coast from Alaska to California. Many of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, such as the Haida and Tlingit, were traditionally known as fierce warriors and slave-traders, raiding as far as California. Slavery was hereditary, the slaves being prisoners of war and their descendants were slaves.
Among some Pacific Northwest tribes about a quarter of the population were slaves. One slave narrative was composed by an Englishman, John R. Jewitt, who had been taken alive when his ship was captured in 1802; his memoir provides a detailed look at life as a slave, and asserts that a large number were held.
Under French rule
In 1628 the first recorded slave in Canada was brought by a British Convoy to New France. Olivier le Jeune was the name given to the boy originally from Madagascar. His given name resonates with the Code Noir. Although loosely established, the Code Noir forced baptisms and decreed the conversion of all slaves to Catholicism.
By 1688, New France's population was 11,562 people, made up primarily of fur traders, missionaries, and farmers settled along the St. Lawrence Valley. To help overcome its severe shortage of servants and labourers, King Louis XIV granted New France's petition to import black slaves from West Africa. While slavery was prohibited in France, it was permitted in its colonies as a means of providing the massive labour force needed to clear land, construct buildings and (in the Caribbean colonies) work sugar plantation. New France soon established its own 'Code Noir,' defining the control and management of slaves. The Code in 1685 set the pattern for policing slavery. It required that all slaves be instructed as Catholics and not as Protestants. It concentrated on defining the condition of slavery, and established harsh controls. Slaves had virtually no rights, though the Code did enjoin masters to take care of the sick and old. The blacks were usually called "servants," and the harsh gang system was not used. Death rates among slaves were high.
Marie-Joseph Angélique was the black slave of a rich widow in Montreal. According to a published account of her life by Afua Cooper, in 1734, after learning that she was going to be sold and separated from her lover, she set fire to her owner's house and escaped. The fire raged out of control, destroying forty-six buildings. Captured two months later, Marie-Joseph was paraded through the city, then tortured until she confessed her crime. In the afternoon of the day of execution, Angélique was taken one last time through the streets of Montreal and, after the stop at the church for her amende honorable, mounted a scaffold facing the ruins of the buildings destroyed by the fire and there was hanged, then strangled until dead, her body flung into the fire and the ashes scattered in the wind.
Under British rule
Black slaves lived in the British regions of Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries — 104 were listed in a 1767 census of Nova Scotia, but their numbers were small until the United Empire Loyalist influx after 1783. As white Loyalists fled the new American Republic, they took with them about 2000 black slaves: 1200 to the Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island), 300 to Lower Canada (Quebec), and 500 to Upper Canada (Ontario). The Imperial Act of 1790 assured prospective immigrants that their slaves would remain their property. As under French rule, Loyalist slaves were held in small numbers and were employed as domestic servants, farm hands, and skilled artisans.
Canadian First Nations owned or traded in slaves. Shawnee, Potawatomi, and other western tribes imported slaves from Ohio and Kentucky and sold them to Canadian settlers. Thayendenaga (chief Joseph Brant) used blacks he had captured during the American Revolution to build Brant House at Burlington Beach and a second home near Brantford. In all, Brant owned about forty black slaves.
The system of gang labour, and its consequent institutions of control and brutality, did not develop in Canada as it did in the USA. Because they did not appear to pose a threat to their masters, slaves were permitted to learn to read and write, Christian conversion was encouraged, and their marriages were recognized by law.
By 1790 the abolition movement was gaining credence in Canada and the ill intent of slavery was evidenced by an incident involving a slave woman being violently abused by her slave owner on her way to being sold in the United States. In 1793 Chloe Clooey, in an act of defiance yelled out screams of resistance. The abuse committed by her slave owner and her violent resistance was witnessed by Peter Martin and William Grisely. Peter Martin, a former slave, brought the incident to the attention of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. Under the auspices of Simcoe, The Slave Act of 1793 was legislated. The elected members of the executive council, many of whom were merchants or farmers who depended on slave labour, saw no need for emancipation. White later wrote that there was "much opposition but little argument" to his measure. Finally the Assembly passed the Act Against Slavery that legislated the gradual abolition of slavery: no slaves could be imported; slaves already in the province would remain enslaved until death, no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada, and children born to female slaves would be slaves but must be freed at age 25. To discourage manumission, the Act required the master to provide security that the former slave would not become a public charge. The compromise Slave Act of 1793 stands as the only attempt by any Canadian legislature to act against slavery. This legal rule ensured the eventual end of slavery in Upper Canada, although as it diminished the sale value of slaves within the province it also resulted in slaves being sold to the United States. In 1798 there was an attempt by a lobby groups to rectify the legislation and import more slaves.
By 1800 the other provinces of British North America had effectively limited slavery through court decisions requiring the strictest proof of ownership, which was rarely available. Slavery remained legal, however, until the British Parliament's Slavery Abolition Act finally abolished slavery in all parts of the British Empire effective August 1, 1834.
The Sierra Leone Company was established to relocate groups of formerly enslaved Africans, nearly 1,200 Black Nova Scotians, most of whom had escaped enslavement in the United States. Given the most barren land in Nova Scotia, many had died from the harsh winters there. They established a settlement in the existing colony in Sierra Leone (already established to home the 'poor blacks' of London) at Freetown in 1792. Many of the "Black poor" were African Americans, who had been promised their freedom for joining the British Army during the American Revolution, but also included other African and Asian inhabitants of London. The Freetown settlement was joined, particularly after 1834, by other groups of freed Africans and became the first African-American haven for formerly enslaved Africans.
Around the time of the Emancipation, the Underground Railroad network was established in the United States, particularly Ohio, where slaves would cross into the Northern States over the Ohio River en route to various settlements and towns in Upper Canada (known as Canada West from 1841 to 1867, now Ontario). This is Canada's only relationship to slavery generally known to the public or acknowledged by the Canadian government.
Historian Marcel Trudel has documented 4,092 recorded slaves throughout Canadian history, of which 2,692 were Aboriginal peoples, owned by the French, and 1,400 blacks owned by the British. Those slaves were owned by approximately 1,400 masters altogether. Trudel also noted 31 marriages took place between French colonists and Aboriginal slaves.
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- Patrick Bode, "Simcoe and the Slaves," The Beaver 73.3 (June-July 1993)
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- Derreck, Tom. "In Bondage," Beaver 2003 83(1): 14-19,
- Frost, Karolyn Smardz; Osei, Kwasi (Cover design); South, Sunny (Cover art) (2007). I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-16481-2. ISBN 978-0-374-53125-6. Winner, 2007 Governor General's Literary Award for Nonfiction; Nominee (Nonfiction), National Books Critics Circle Award 2007. See, Governor General's Award for English language non-fiction.
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- History of Slavery in Canada Portal