For Canadians, the launch of Black History Month on Feb. 1 may bring to mind slavery and Canada’s noble legacy of emancipation through the Underground Railroad, which enabled thousands of slaves to escape to Canada (then British North America) over a 20-year period.
But few realize that slavery was also practiced in Canada, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the American South. African slaves were brought here as chattel by the French and English and forced to work as servants and farmhands.
Author and historian Afua Cooper has described slavery in the Great White North as “Canada’s best kept secret.” She says that between 1628 and 1833, Canada had approximately 8,000 slaves, but it’s a part of the country’s history that is not well known.
“Canada conveniently forgot its own history of slave-holding, because that would make the country look immoral, indecent,” says Cooper.
“The narrative of the Underground Railroad has superseded this narrative of enslavement in Canada, because Canada was able to use the Underground narrative to distinguish itself from the United States, which for several centuries was an enemy.”
Putting the focus solely on Canada’s image as a safe haven and a land of freedom for slaves ignores an important piece of our history, she adds.
“We can’t rewrite history, and we have to embrace all parts of who we were—the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Before the British conquest of 1760 when Canada was still a French colony, nearly 60 percent of slaves were aboriginal and 40 percent were of African descent, Cooper estimates. After Britain took over, the ratio of aboriginal slaves declined as the British brought in more slaves from Africa, the West Indies, and the Caribbean, as well as from its 13 American colonies.
Slave-owners in the American South were largely plantation owners, but in Canada they ran the gamut, from merchants and fur traders to farmers and even religious institutions.
“The slave owners were everybody, in every social class,” says Cooper. “Members of the clergy owned large amounts of slaves.”
Cooper has written several books on slavery in Canada, including “The Hanging of Angélique,” which tells the story of enslaved African Marie-Joseph Angélique, who was tortured and hanged in Montreal for allegedly setting fire to her owner’s home in 1734.
The fire destroyed much of what is now known as Old Montreal, and the story focused attention on the conditions of slavery in Canada and the growing rebellion against it.
Angélique was a rebellious slave who once tried to run away from her owner—a common phenomenon at the time, according to Cooper.
“In writing that biography I discovered lots of other people who even took their owners to court, who ran away from slavery,” says Cooper.
“When you look in the colonial newspapers you see so many advertisements for slaves who ran away and their owners are seeking them, wanting them to come back.”
Slavery in Canada it came to an end in 1833, when the U.K. Parliament passed an act abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire.
Slave Turned Abolitionist
Cooper has also written a series of historical novels for young adults based on the lives of influential ex-slaves. One such story details the life of Henry Bibb, an American author and well-known abolitionist who was born into slavery in Kentucky. He attempted to escape several times before he was finally successful in 1841.
Once free, he quickly became an influential anti-slavery activist, speaker, and author. In 1851 he moved to Ontario and founded Canada’s first black newspaper, Voice of the Fugitive, which helped cultivate a more sympathetic climate for blacks and assisted new arrivals in adjusting to life in Canada.
Bibb’s six brothers were sold into slavery, but he was eventually reunited with three of them, who separately had also escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. He documented their stories in his newspaper.
“He died quite young,” says Cooper. “He was only 39 years old when he died, but what he packed into those 39 years was just incredible.”
Canadians should know these stories and understand the legacy of slavery in Canada, but it remains largely left out of the school curriculum and public discourse, says Cooper.
“You can finish a bachelor’s degree in Canadian history and not know anything about this part of the country’s history,” she says. “It has to be part of the curriculum.”
This change needs to be pushed not only by educators and government, but also by African Canadians and activists at the grassroots level, she adds.
“We’re talking about what government officials, academics, public intellectuals, and media—what they choose to highlight in their framing of what is Canada. So it is a question of power,” she says.
“At the same time, the ordinary people, African Canadians themselves, [and] people who are seeking social justice have to continue this agitation, if you will, for a more inclusive discourse on Canadian history.”