The Enslavement of African People in Canada (c. 1629–1834)

Backgrounder

Between c. 1629 and 1834, there were more than 4,000 enslaved people of African descent in the British and French colonies that became Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick. The colonies denied their humanity, reduced them to property to be bought and sold, exploited their labour, and subjected them to physical, sexual, psychological, and reproductive violence.

These colonies developed their own systems of enslavement, which distinguished them from slave societies elsewhere in the French and British empires. At the same time, they reaffirmed the interconnectedness of the Atlantic World through their active participation in the trade of enslaved Africans and the goods they produced throughout the Americas. In May 1689, the French monarch Louis XIV officially sanctioned the participation of New France in the centuries-old Atlantic slave trade after the colonial administrator, Jean-Baptiste de Lagny (Sieur des Brigandières), petitioned the governor and intendant to send enslaved Africans, insisting that the economic viability of the colony depended upon their forced labour. The Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch, British, Danes, Swedes, and other Europeans used similar economic arguments to justify the forcible capture and transportation of approximately 12.5 million sub-Saharan Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to their colonies in the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries. These men, women, and children endured unimaginable horrors. Approximately 15 percent died in the Middle Passage.

British colonies in the Americas were complicit in the Atlantic slave trade, often without ever clearly defining the legal foundations for the enslavement of African people. In 1781, Saint John’s Island (Prince Edward Island) became the only colony in British North America to pass legislation that defined the legal parameters of enslavement. However, the largest population of enslaved people of African descent was probably in Nova Scotia. Many United Empire Loyalists fled to that colony after the American Revolution and brought enslaved Africans with them as duty-free “property.”

In the British and French colonies, violence was part of daily life for enslaved people of African descent. Few lived beyond the age of 25. Physical violence for the purposes of punishment, reprisal, or dehumanization, ranged from lashings with chains and public whippings to torture. Many also faced sexual exploitation, abuse, and violence, especially girls and women, who had no control over their bodies and no reproductive rights.

Enslaved people of African descent fought back in many ways, which included appropriating, adapting or rejecting religions imposed upon them by Europeans, destroying tools to limit their productivity, and risking violent capture and re-enslavement to seek refuge in communities of free people of African descent or reunite with family members. Some challenged the legitimacy of their enslavement in courts of law, which contributed to the decline of African enslavement in Lower Canada in the late 1790s. Other free people of African descent in North America and Western Europe became advocates for the end of enslavement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the abolition movement started to take shape.

In 1793, the legislature of Upper Canada (Ontario) became the first in British North America to introduce a statute that imposed limits on African enslavement. This statute was a response to the testimony of Peter Martin, a formerly enslaved man of African descent who was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War. He spoke about how an enslaved woman named Chloe Cooley was “violently and forcibly” transported to slaveholders in New York. Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe advocated for abolition, which put him in opposition to slaveholding members of the legislature. In the end, the statute of 1793 prohibited the “importation” of enslaved people, but did not free anyone. Many enslaved people subsequently fled to the northern United States, settling in places that had already abolished enslavement.

It took the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act by the British parliament to finally prohibit the enslavement of African people across most of the Empire, effective 1 August 1834. This legislation was drafted with the West Indies in mind: its provisions for apprenticeships for formerly enslaved people and financial compensation for slaveholders were not applied in the colonies of British North America. In the years that followed, African Canadians marked Emancipation Day with events that eventually gave rise to such festivals as Caribana in Toronto, Ontario, which first took place in 1967.

After 1834, people of African descent were legally free, but they were not equal: they have faced significant racial segregation, discrimination, prejudice, and inequality in Canadian society, which is, at least in part, a legacy of enslavement.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here:  https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/ncp-pcn.

Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada wish to thank Nadine Williams for nominating The Enslavement of African People in Canada under the National Program of Historical Commemoration. Nadine Williams is a Jamaican-Canadian poet, author, and arts educator.

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