Slavery in Canada includes both that practised by First Nations from earliest times and that under European colonization. While Britain did not ban slavery in present-day Canada (and the rest of the British colonies) until 1833, the practice of slavery was ended through case law; and it died out in the early 19th century through judicial actions litigated on behalf of slaves seeking manumission. (Britain was the first country in the world to abolish the slave trade in 1807. It was abolished in the U.S. in 1808, the first allowable date under the United States Constitution.) The courts, to varying degrees, rendered slavery unenforceable in both Lower Canada and Nova Scotia. In Lower Canada, for example, after court decisions in the late 1790s, the "slave could not be compelled to serve longer than he would, and ... might leave his master at will." A significant number of blacks (free and slaves) came to Canada from the United States after the American Revolution and again after the War of 1812.
Some slaves were of African descent, but many were Aboriginal (typically called panis, from the French term for Pawnee). Slavery within what is now Canada was practised by Aboriginal groups and European settlers.
People of African descent were forcibly brought as chattel slaves to New France, Acadia and the later British North America during the 17th century. Those in Canada typically came from the American colonies, as no shiploads of human chattel went to Canada directly from Africa. The number of slaves in New France is believed to have been in the hundreds. They were house servants and farm workers. There were no large plantations in Canada, and therefore no large 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 minor, the history of slavery in Canada is often overshadowed by the more tumultuous slavery practised elsewhere in the Americas, particularly in the southern United States and colonial Caribbean. Some Black Canadians today are descended from these slaves.
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, on what is sometimes described as the Northwest Coast. Some 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. Some tribes in British Columbia continued to segregate and ostracize the descendants of slaves as late as the 1970s.
Among a few Pacific Northwest tribes about a quarter of the population were slaves. 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
In 1628 the first recorded black 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.
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 on sugar plantations. 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.
Marie-Joseph Angélique was the black slave of a rich widow in Montreal. According to a published account of her life, by Afua Cooper in 1734, after learning that she was going to be sold and separated from her lover, 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 through the streets of Montreal and, after the stop at the church for her amende honorable, made to climb a scaffold facing the ruins of the buildings destroyed by the fire. There she was hanged until dead, with her body flung into the fire and the ashes scattered in the wind.
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 1,509 slave owners, of which only 181 were English. Trudel also noted 31 marriages took place between French colonists and Aboriginal slaves.
Under British rule
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 or gifted them to allies and 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.
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 2,000 black slaves: 1,200 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. As under French rule, Loyalist slaves were held in small numbers and were employed as domestic servants, farm hands, and skilled artisans.
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.
The Quebec Gazette of 12 July 1787 had an advertisement:
- For sale, a robust Negress, active and with good hearing, about 18 years old, who has had small-pox, has been accustomed to household duties, understands the kitchen, knows how to wash, iron, sew, and very used to caring for children. She can adapt itself equally to an English, French or German family, she speaks all three languages.
Lower Canada (Quebec)
In Lower Canada, Sir James Monk, the Chief Justice, rendered a series of decisions in the late 1790s that undermined the ability to compel slaves to serve their masters; while "not technically abolishing slavery, [they] rendered it innocuous." As a result, slaves began to flee their masters within the province, but also from other provinces and from the United States. This occurred several years before the legislature acted in Upper Canada to limit slavery. While the decision was founded upon a technicality (the extant law allowing committal of slaves not to jails, but only to houses of correction, of which there were none in the province), Monk went on to say that "slavery did not exist in the province and to warn owners that he would apply this interpretation of the law to all subsequent cases." In subsequent decisions, and in the absence of specific legislation, Monk's interpretation held (even once there had been houses of correction established). In a later test of this interpretation, the administrator of Lower Canada, Sir James Kempt, refused a request from the U.S. government to return an escaped slave, informing that fugitives might be given up only when the crime in question was also a crime in Lower Canada: "The state of slavery is not recognized by the Law of Canada. ... Every Slave therefore who comes into the Province is immediately free whether he has been brought in by violence or has entered it of his own accord."
While many black people who arrived in Nova Scotia during the American Revolution were free, others were not. Some blacks 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. Historian Alan Wilson describes the document as "a landmark on the road to personal freedom in province and country". Historian Robin Winks writes it is "the sharpest attack to come from a Canadian pen even into the 1840s; he had also brought about a public debate which soon reached the courts". (Abolitionist lawyer Benjamin Kent was buried in Halifax in 1788.) In 1790 John Burbidge freed his slaves. Led by Richard John Uniacke, in 1787, 1789 and again on 11 January 1808 the Nova Scotian legislature refused to legalize slavery. 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. 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. (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. They created a settlement in the existing colony in Sierra Leone (already established to make a home for the "poor blacks" of London) at Freetown in 1792. Many of the "black poor" 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 in Africa for formerly enslaved Africans.
Upper Canada (Ontario)
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 Cooley, 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. Peter Martin, a former slave, brought the incident to the attention of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. Under the auspices of Simcoe, the Act Against Slavery 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 Act Against Slavery stands as the only attempt by any Ontario legislature to act against slavery. 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.
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. In 1819, John Robinson Attorney General of Upper Canada declared that by residing in Canada, black residents were set free, and that Canadian courts would protect their freedom. Slavery remained legal, however, until the British Parliament's Slavery Abolition Act finally abolished slavery in most parts of the British Empire effective 1 August 1834.
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 and into Canada across Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, 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.
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. 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. The biggest human trafficking case in Canadian history surrounded the dismantling of the Domotor-Kolompar criminal organization. On June 6, 2012, the Government of Canada established the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking in order to oppose human trafficking. The Human Trafficking Taskforce was established in June 2012 to replace the Interdepartmental Working Group on Trafficking in Persons as the body responsible for the development of public policy related to human trafficking in Canada.
One current and highly publicized instance is the vast "disappearances" of Aboriginal women which has been linked to human trafficking by some sources. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper had been reluctant to tackle the issue on the grounds that it is not a "sociological issue" and declined 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.
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