Key events in Black Canadian history

The first person of African heritage to come to what is now Canada arrived some 400 years ago. In 1604, Mathieu Da Costa arrived with the French explorers Pierre Du Gua De Monts and Samuel de Champlain. Da Costa, a multilingual interpreter who spoke English, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Pidgin Basque, provided an invaluable link with the Mik’maq people encountered by the Europeans.

The 1600s

In 1628, Olivier LeJeune was recorded as the first enslaved African to live in Canada (i.e. New France). Olivier LeJeune’s birth name is not known, as he was taken from Africa as a young child and eventually given the last name of the priest who purchased him.

People of African descent were enslaved in Canada from 1628 until slavery was abolished in Upper Canada in 1793 and throughout the entire British Empire in 1833.

The 1700s

During the War of American Independence (1775-1783), the British offered freedom to enslaved Africans in America who joined the British side during the war. Many accepted the invitation, and as a result 10 percent of the United Empire Loyalists coming into the Maritimes were Black.

In 1793, the Abolition Act was passed in Upper Canada (now known as Ontario). This law freed enslaved people aged 25 and over and made it illegal to bring enslaved people into Upper Canada. The Abolition Act in Upper Canada and court decisions in Nova Scotia in the 1790s contributed greatly to a decline of African enslavement in Canada, and made Canada a safe haven for those seeking freedom and an important base for the abolitionist movement.

The 1800s

In 1807, the Act on the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire received Royal Assent and became law throughout the British Empire. In 1833, the Act on the Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire, abolished enslavement in most British colonies, including Canada. These were the results of a long and arduous campaign in the British Parliament led by William Wilberforce, M.P. (1759-1833) and supported by an alliance of Evangelical Anglicans, Quakers and Black Abolitionists. Between 1800 and 1865, approximately 30,000 Black people came to Canada via the Underground Railway.

During the War of 1812, the Coloured Corps fought in the Battle of Queenston Heights, a decisive engagement with the Americans. The Corps had been established thanks to Richard Pierpoint, a Black Loyalist and true Canadian hero.

Railway porters played a major role in the struggle for Black rights in Canada. Starting in the late 1880s, they emerged as leaders of Black communities in Montréal and other urban centres. Through their unions, such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Order of Sleeping Car Porters, they gained recognition for Black workers. After the Second World War, the porters made important contributions to the campaign for human rights, particularly through their struggle to end discrimination in railway employment.

Black Railway Porters,
Windsor train station,
Montréal, Québec
Africville Geneological Society
In 1858, nearly 800 free Black people left the oppressive racial conditions of San Francisco for a new life on Vancouver Island. Governor James Douglas had invited them to settle in British Columbia. Though still faced with intense discrimination, these pioneers enriched the political, religious and economic life of the colony. For example, Mifflin Gibbs became a prominent politician, Charles and Nancy Alexander initiated the Shady Creek Methodist Church, and John Deas established a salmon cannery. The group also formed one of the earliest colonial militia units, the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps. A ceremony took place on February 20, 2000 in Saanichton, B.C. to honour the arrival of the Black Pioneers to British Columbia.
Black Pioneers to British Columbia
Cathie Ferguson, Parks Canada
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