The Role of Slavery in Canadian History
In early Canada, the enslavement of African peoples was a legal instrument that helped fuel colonial economic enterprise. The buying, selling and enslavement of Black people was practiced by European traders and colonists in New France in the early 1600s, and lasted until it was abolished throughout British North America in 1834. During that two-century period, settlers in what would eventually become Canada were involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Canada is further linked to the institution of enslavement through its history of international trade. Products such as salted cod and timber were exchanged for slave-produced goods such as rum, molasses, tobacco and sugar from slaveholding colonies in the Caribbean.
In an economy propelled by the fur trade, as well as urban economies in some places, enslaved Africans worked as rat catchers, hangmen, and domestic servants. They were miners and fishermen, blacksmiths and carpenters, and worked in hotels and bars and wherever else the burgeoning cities needed unpaid labour. Legally owned by the Church, lawyers, business people, and merchants, they suffered indignities, loss of control over their lives, and a dimming view of their own and their families' futures that we can only imagine. These slaves laboured and endured on lands we now call Canada. Mentioned matter-of-factly, this fact can delegitimize the lie that this country differs greatly from its southern neighbour, in the face of a persistent campaign of sanctimonious, narcissism-of-small-differences, and finger-pointing at the United States. "In my engagement with African Canadian history, I have come to realize that Black history has less to do with Black people and more with White pride," writes Afua Cooper in The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal. "That is why slavery has been erased from the collective consciousness. It is about an ignoble and unsavoury past, and because it casts Whites in a 'bad' light, they as chroniclers of the country's past, creators and keepers of its traditions and myths, banished this past to the dustbins of history." But this history is too big to remain in the dustbins. Institutionalized for 206 years, slavery occurred in Upper Canada (now Ontario), New France (Quebec), Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick, and at least 4,000 people were its victims. French colonists initially bought slaves from U.S. colonies, and also brought them to New France from the West Indies, Africa, and Europe. In The Transatlantic Slave Trade, Stephen D. Behrendt writes of early Canadian shipyards constructing ships for the British slave trade. Though slavery was not as extensive in Canada as in the United States, that wasn't because morality reigned and respected an arbitrary border. It simply wasn't as necessary in an economy based on fur trading instead of plantation agriculture. But still it grew and took root. After the conquest of Canada, which turned New France into Quebec, slavery expanded, with British-American colonists settling in Canada with their slaves.
Slavery in what is now Canada predates the arrival of Europeans, with some Indigenous peoples enslaving prisoners taken in war. Europeans brought a different kind of slavery to North America, however. Unlike Indigenous people, Europeans saw enslaved people less as human beings and more as property that could be bought and sold. Just as importantly, Europeans viewed slavery in racial terms, with Indigenous and African people serving and white people ruling as masters. The transatlantic slave trade helped shape the presence and role of slavery in Canadian history. With the increasing use of African enslaved people in North America, a pattern of trade emerged that has since been called the “trade triangle.” European merchants would leave Europe for Africa, travelling in ships laden with goods. In Africa, they would exchange their goods for enslaved people and then transport them to the Americas, often in cramped and inhumane conditions. In the Americas, the surviving enslaved people would be sold and then goods produced by slave labour would be carried back to Europe for sale. Slavers saw their trade from a purely economic standpoint and viewed enslaved people as just another set of “goods” they could transport and sell. With this mentality, slavers denied the fundamental human rights of millions of African men and women (Charles G. Roland). Slavery continued after the British conquest of New France in 1763. The territory was eventually renamed British North America, and Black enslaved people came to replace Indigenous enslaved people. Compared to the United States, enslaved people made up a much smaller proportion of the population in British North America. This means that some of the worst traits of slavery in America, such as the employment of overseers and the horrible practice of forcing enslaved people to reproduce, did not happen in what is now Canada. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that enslaved people in British North America were well‐treated. The very nature of slavery meant that its victims were stripped of their basic human rights and exploited. 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 (James A. Rawley, 2005). Defiant or troublesome enslaved people were often severely punished. Physical and sexual abuse was always a very real threat.
To sum up, though the Underground Railroad began bringing escaped slaves in 1815, it didn’t really take off until well after Canadian slavery came to a close in 1833 when Britain banned it across the empire. And it’s not like white supremacy went away along with slavery. Indigenous people were pushed onto reserves and forbidden to leave without a government-issued “Indian Pass” until the early 1940s, and not allowed to vote until 1960. Their children were taken away to residential schools and/or given to white families for decades after that.
Charles G. Roland, “Slavery” in the Oxford Companion to Canadian History, 585.
Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History, second edition (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), 9.
Canadian Museum of History, Virtual Museum of New France, Population, Slavery- will open in a new tab (accessed 22 August 2018).
James A. Rawley, The Translatlantic Slave Trade: A History, revised edition (Dexter, MI: Thomson‐Shore Inc., 2005), 7.
Ken Alexander and Avis Glaze, Towards Freedom: The African‐Canadian Experience (Toronto: Umbrella Press, 1996), 29.