The Role of Slavery in Canadian History
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.
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.
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.
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.