Black History Month

A forgotten history of slavery in Canada

Black History Month is a time for recognition, not a chance for Canadians to feel morally superior over our southern neighbours
Photo: Canadian Encyclopedia

A white person beat a black child slave to death with a hammer for some perceived, yet undocumented, transgression. Daily witnesses to such acts of brutality, many slaves escaped. Those who were returned had their ears cut off. If they ran away a second time, their hamstrings were cut. A third time, they would be murdered.

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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.

Reversing the Underground Railroad

"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.

Before the term "slave" was used, as Marcel Trudel reminds us in Canada's Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage, the preferred term was "savage belonging to…." Slaves were considered white people's personal property and could be used as security for debts. The only difference between a slave and a cow, as Trudel puts it, "was that the slave was worth five times as much." On average, slaves lived only 25 years.

The practice was sufficiently degrading and soul-crushing that slaves took every opportunity they could to run away. They went into the woods, or back to where they were previously enslaved, often into U.S. colonies. In the late 18th century, when some northern U.S. colonies abolished slavery or made efforts to do so gradually, "many Upper Canadians enslaved Blacks escaped into these free territories," writes Cooper about this kind of reverse Underground Railroad. "So numerous were some of these former Canadians in American cities that, in Detroit, for example, a group of former Upper Canadian slaves formed a militia in 1806 for the defense of the city against the Canadians."

Canada was not the refuge for slaves that many now imagine it was. For many people who longed for liberation, it was a dungeon whose conditions never quite stamped out the urge to resist. Slaves sometimes ran away temporarily as a protest against their owners for harsh work conditions, or they left permanently. They "took steps to wreak revenge on their owners," writes Cooper, and "talked back, broke tools, were disobedient, threatened their owners, organized slave uprisings, and in two cases allegedly set major fires that devastated colonial towns." Sometimes they filed lawsuits and questioned the ownership rights of their masters.

Tearing apart the long lie

Despite this history of slavery and resistance, the myth of Canada, created and entrenched long ago, remains. In The Blacks in Canada: A History, Robin W. Winks echoes the common belief that Canada should not be implicated in the crime of black slavery. When in 1901 "a black sensationalist, William H. H. Johnson, published in Vancouver an essay filled with bloodhounds, mutilations, attempted rape, incest, floggings, and sudden discoveries of long-lost sons," he wrote, "Canadians reminded themselves, quite properly, of the irrelevance of this tale to their experience. Canada had played an honorable role in the continental attack on slavery, had harbored fugitives from that condition, and had sent them home or seen them to their grave."

In the article "'This is no hearsay': Reading the Canadian Slave Narratives," George Elliott Clarke notes the 19th-century development in many ordinary people of a view of "Canada as a true, free land opposing the 'United Slave States of America.'"

"In such imagery lie, in part, the roots of our imagined moral superiority vis-à-vis the United States," he writes.

How we can challenge that smug and false belief may be unclear, but perhaps it will begin with a recognition that Black History Month is as relevant here as anywhere else. To spend this month recalling and lamenting only the anti-black history of the United States is to reproduce and participate in that imagined moral superiority. Too many stories have been ignored, exaggerated, or capitalized on in Canada's history.

"Out of a multiplicity of stories, they cobble together a narrative glossing over accident, opportunism, necessity, and misdirection," writes Dionne Brand in A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging about the black experience in Canada. "They uplift aggression and carnage into courage, they exaggerate cunning into pride."

Canada, made wealthy by the global trade in black bodies, by unpaid labour on much of these lands, has fashioned a satisfying sense of itself that will not easily be torn apart. But a lie this long will eventually be overwhelmed by a history that can no longer be contained in the dustbins.

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