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Slavery in Canada has a history stretching from prehistoric times to the 1830s, when slavery was officially abolished. Some slaves were of African descent, while others were aboriginal (typically called "panis", likely a corruption of Pawnee).

Slavery was practiced by some aboriginal nations, who routinely captured slaves from neighbouring tribes.

African slaves were forcibly brought as chattel by Europeans to the Canada. Chattel slavery, a form of hereditary slavery, was established by European colonization and settlement of Canada during the 17th century. Legally, slaves were regarded as movable possessions and private property.

Large-scale plantation slavery of the sort that existed in warmer parts of the New World never existed because there were no plantations. Most of the slaves in Canada were domestic house servants, although some performed agricultural labour.

Although Canada has a history of slavery, it is often overshadowed by the more tumultuous kind featured in other areas in the Americas. Afua Cooper states that slavery is, "Canada's best kept secret, locked within the National closet."

Under indigenous rule

Slave-owning tribes of what became Canada were, for example, the fishing societies, such as the Yurok, that lived along the Pacific coast from Alaska to California. 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.

Among some 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 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 with the Code Noir, although loosely established, 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 laborers, 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 Code in 1685 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 was high.

Marie-Joseph Angélique was the black slave of a rich widow in Montreal. 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. The crowd watched as she was hanged, and her corpse was burned. Slavery continued after the British took control in 1760.

Under British rule

The 1763 Treaty of Paris made no reference to slavery in Canada, nor does the Quebec Act of 1774 or the Treaty of Paris of 1783 -- either to ban it or to permit it. After 1783, about 3,500 free blacks immigrated to Canada, mostly persons who had won their freedom by supporting the British by taking up arms during the U.S. War of Independence.

Many Loyalists from the United States brought their slaves with them to Canada after the American Revolution. Some slaves fled Upper and Lower Canada to free states in America such as Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, and Pennsylvania. The Imperial Act of 1790 assured prospective immigrants that their slaves would remain their property.

Canadian First Nations also owned or traded in slaves. 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.

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. 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. 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 Canadian 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 a lobby groups to rectify the legislation and import more slaves.

By 1797, courts began to rule in favour of slaves who complained of poor treatment from their owners. These developments were resisted in Lower Canada until 1803, when Chief Justice William Osgoode ruled that slavery was not compatible with British law.

This historic judgment, while it did not abolish slavery, set free 300 slaves and resulted in the rapid decline of the practice of slavery. However, slavery remained in Upper and Lower Canada until 1834 when the British Parliamentmarker's Slavery Abolition Act finally abolished slavery in all parts of the British Empire.

Most of the emancipated slaves of African descent in Canada were in the 1830s sent to settle Freetownmarker in Sierra Leonemarker and those that remained primarily ended up in segregated communities such as Africvillemarker outside Halifaxmarker, Nova Scotiamarker.

Today there are four remaining slave cemeteries in Canada: in St.-Armandmarker, Quebec, Shelburnemarker, Nova Scotia and Pricevillemarker and Dresdenmarker in Ontario.

Around the time of the Emancipation, the Underground Railroad network was established in the United States, particularly Ohiomarker, 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).

See also

Further reading

  • Clarke, George Elliott."'This Is No Hearsay': Reading the Canadian Slave Narratives," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada / Cahiers De La Société Bibliographique du Canada 2005 43(1): 7-32, original narratives written by Canadian slaves
  • Cooper, Afua. The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal (2006)
  • Derreck, Tom. "In Bondage," Beaver 2003 83(1): 14-19,
  • Hajda, Yvonne P. "Slavery in the Greater Lower Columbia Region," Ethnohistory 2005 52(3): 563-588,
  • Riddell, William Renwick. "Further Notes on Slavery in Canada," The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jan., 1924), pp. 26-33 in JSTOR
  • Trudel, Marcel. Deux Siècles d'Esclavage au Québec. (2nd ed. 2004), 408pp
  • *Whitfield, Harvey. "Black Loyalists and Black Slaves in Maritime Canada," History Compass 2007 5(6): 1980-1997,
  • Winks, Robin. Blacks in Canada: A History (1971)


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