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Slavery in Canada

File:An Act Against Slavery.jpg
An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province, Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada, 1793

Slavery in Canada includes both slavery as practiced by First Nations in land that now comprises Canada before European colonization, as well as slavery under European colonization, the latter of which legally existed until 1833, when slavery was officially abolished. However that was not the end of human bondage in Canada as forms of slavery, human trafficking in particular, still occur today within its borders.

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 small number of 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. Those in Canada came from the American colonies, as no shiploads of human chattel came to Canada directly from Africa.[1] The number of slaves in New France is believed to be in the hundreds.[1] 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 southerly 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 infamously in the American South and the colonial Caribbean. Afua Cooper states that slavery is, "Canada's best kept secret, locked within the National closet."[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] Some tribes in British Columbia continued to segregate and ostracize the descendants of slaves as late as the 1970s.[5]

Among some Pacific Northwest tribes about a quarter of the population were slaves.[6][7] 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

Main article: Slavery in New France

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 somewhat with the Code Noir, although the Code was not established until 1685. The Code Noir forced baptisms and decreed the conversion of all slaves to Catholicism.[8]

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 1685 Code Noir 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.[9]

Marie-Joseph Angélique was the black slave of a rich widow in Montreal. According to a published account of her life[10] by Afua Cooper, in 1734, after learning that she was going to be sold and separated from her lover,[11] 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.[12]

Historian Marcel Trudel recorded approximately 4000 slaves by the end of New France in 1759, of which 2,472 were aboriginal people, and 1,132 blacks. After the Conquest of New France by the British, slave ownership remained dominated by the French. Marcel Trudel identified 1509 slave owners, which only 181 were English.[13] Trudel also noted 31 marriages took place between French colonists and Aboriginal slaves.[14]

Under British rule

Canadian First Nations owned or traded in slaves, an institution that had existed for centuries or longer among certain groups. 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.[15]

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). In Ontario, the Imperial Act of 1790 assured prospective immigrants that their slaves would remain their property.[16] As under French rule, Loyalist slaves were held in small numbers and were employed as domestic servants, farm hands, and skilled artisans.

The subject of slavery in Canada is unmentioned– neither banning nor permitting– in both the 1763 Treaty of Paris and the Quebec Act of 1774 or the Treaty of Paris of 1783.

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.

Abolition movement

Nova Scotia

While many blacks who arrived in Nova Scotia during the American Revolution were free, others were not.[17] Black slaves also arrived in Nova Scotia as the property of White American Loyalists. In 1772, prior to the American Revolution, Britain outlawed the slave trade in the British Isles followed by the Knight v. Wedderburn decision in Scotland in 1778. This decision, in turn, influenced the colony of Nova Scotia. In 1788, abolitionist James Drummond MacGregor from Pictou published the first anti-slavery literature in Canada and began purchasing slaves' freedom and chastising his colleagues in the Presbyterian church who owned slaves.[18] In 1790 John Burbidge freed his slaves. Led by Richard John Uniacke, in 1787, 1789 and again on January 11, 1808 the Nova Scotian legislature refused to legalize slavery.[19][20] Two chief justices, Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange (1790-1796) and Sampson Salter Blowers (1797-1832) were instrumental in freeing slaves from their owners in Nova Scotia.[21][22][23] They were held in high regard in the colony. By the end of the War of 1812 and the arrival of the Black Refugees, there were few slaves left in Nova Scotia.[24] (The Slave Trade Act outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 outlawed slavery altogether.)

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 coastal environment of 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.


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.[25] 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. Attorney-General John 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 Ontario legislature to act against slavery.[26] 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 lobby groups to rectify the legislation and import more slaves.[27]

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.

Today there are four remaining slave cemeteries in Canada: in St-Armand, Quebec, Shelburne, Nova Scotia and Priceville and Dresden in Ontario.

Underground Railroad

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.

In Nova Scotia, former slave Richard Preston established the African Abolition Society in the fight to end slavery in America. Preston was trained as a minister in England and met many of the leading voices in the abolitionist movement that helped to get the Slavery Abolition Act passed by the British Parliament in 1833. When Preston returned to Nova Scotia, he became the president of the Abolitionist movement in Halifax. Preston stated:

The time will come when slavery will be just one of our many travails. Our children and their children’s children will mature to become indifferent toward climate and indifferent toward race. Then we will desire . . . Nay!, we will demand and we will be able to obtain our fair share of wealth, status and prestige, including political power. Our time will have come, and we will be ready . . . we must be.[28]

Modern slavery

Slavery did not end with the ratifying of the Slavery Convention in 1953. Human trafficking in Canada has become a significant legal and political issue, and Canadian legislators have been criticized for having failed to deal with the problem in a more systematic way.[29] British Columbia's Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons formed in 2007, making British Columbia the first province of Canada to address human trafficking in a formal manner.[30] The biggest human trafficking case in Canadian history surrounded the dismantling of the Domotor-Kolompar criminal organization.[31] On June 6, 2012, the Government of Canada established the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking in order to oppose human trafficking.[32] The Human Trafficking Taskforce was established in June 2012 to replace the Interdepartmental Working Group on Trafficking in Persons[33] as the body responsible for the development of public policy related to human trafficking in Canada.[34]

One current and highly publicized instance is the vast "disappearances" of Aboriginal woman which has been linked to human trafficking by some sources.[35] Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been reluctant to tackle the issue claiming that it is not a "sociological issue"[36] and refuses to create a national inquiry into the issue counter to United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' opinions that the issue is significant and in need of higher inquiry.[36][37]

See also


  1. ^ a b Greer, Allan (2003). The people of New France (Repr. ed.). Toronto [u.a.]: Univ. of Toronto Press. p. 86. ISBN 08020-7816-8. 
  2. ^ AfuaCooper, The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal,(Toronto:HarperPerennial, 2006)'
  3. ^ "Slavery in the New World". Retrieved 2011-02-25. 
  4. ^ Kenneth M. Ames, "Slaves, Chiefs and Labour on the Northern Northwest Coast," World Archaeology, Vol. 33, No. 1, The Archaeology of Slavery (Jun., 2001), pp. 1-17 in JSTOR
  5. ^ Donald, Leland (1997). Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America, University of California Press, pp. 249-251
  6. ^ Digital History African American Voices[dead link]
  7. ^ Haida Warfare[dead link]
  8. ^ Afua Cooper,The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the burning of Old Montreal(Toronto:HarperPerennial,2006), 74-76.
  9. ^ Trudel (2004)
  10. ^ Cooper (2006)
  11. ^ "Claude Thibault". Retrieved 2011-02-25. 
  12. ^ "Report on the execution, 3 in the afternoon, 21 June 1734". Retrieved 2011-02-25. 
  13. ^ Robin W. Winks. The Blacks in Canada, A History. Mcgill-Queen's University Press, 1997. p.9.
  14. ^ Cooper, Afua (February 2006). The Hanging of Angélique: Canada, Slavery and the Burning of Montreal. HarperCollins Canada. ISBN 978-0-00-200553-1. 
  15. ^ Derreck (2003)
  16. ^ "An Act To Prevent The Further Introduction Of Slaves". Retrieved 2011-02-25. 
  17. ^ Slavery in the Maritime Provinces
  18. ^
  19. ^ Bridglal Pachai & Henry Bishop. Historic Black Nova Scotia. 2006. p. 8
  20. ^ John Grant. Black Refugees. p. 31
  21. ^ Biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
  22. ^ Nova Scotia courts rule against slavery
  23. ^ Barry Cahill. Slavery and the Judges of Loyalist Nova Scotia. UNB Law Journal, 43 (1994) pp. 73-135
  24. ^
  25. ^ Archives of Ontario,"Enslaved Africans in Upper Canada,"
  26. ^ Patrick Bode, "Upper Canada, 1793: Simcoe and the Slaves." Beaver 1993 73(3): 17-19
  27. ^ Patrick Bode, "Simcoe and the Slaves," The Beaver 73.3 (June–July 1993)
  28. ^ Canadian Biography - Richard Preston
  29. ^ Falling Short of the Mark: An International Study on the Treatment of Human Trafficking Victims. Future Group March 2006
  30. ^ Benjamin Perrin (2010). Invisible Chains. Penguin Books. ISBN 0143178970. 
  31. ^ Ian Robertson (April 3, 2012). "Head of human trafficking ring gets 9 years". The London Free Press. Retrieved November 19, 2013. 
  32. ^ "The Harper Government Launches Canada's National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking". Public Safety Canada. June 6, 2012. Retrieved May 25, 2013. 
  33. ^ "Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography" (PDF). Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children. October 5, 2012. p. 2. Retrieved October 21, 2013. 
  34. ^ Jeffrey T. Bergner, ed. (2008). Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2008. Diane Publishing. p. 2610. ISBN 1437905226. 
  35. ^ "First Nations Women Are Being Sold into the Sex Trade On Ships Along Lake Superior". Vice News. August 23, 2013. Retrieved January 18, 2015. 
  36. ^ a b "Murdered and missing aboriginal women deserve inquiry, rights group says". CBC. Jan 12, 2015. Retrieved January 18, 2015. 
  37. ^ "UN report on Canada’s treatment of aboriginal people in spotlight Monday". CBC. May 11, 2014. Retrieved January 18, 2015. 

Further reading


External links