Black History in Canada: some interesting stories

It is easy for me to stand up and insist that you all go learn about black history. The fact is, however, that I am mostly chiding myself for my own ignorance. After all, it wasn’t until relatively recently that I took an active interest in black history beyond whatever tidbits I could glean from organizations with a mandate for education. As a result, reading through Mensah’s book, I’m learning quite a number of surprising and fascinating things.

Canada has a hundred-year history of black slavery

“It was towards the end of the seventeenth century that acute labour shortages prompted the importation of Blacks in significant numbers. And, as Walker (1980: 19) points out, ‘from then until the early nineteenth century, throughout the founding of the present Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario, there was never a time when Blacks were not held as slaves in Canada.” (p. 46)

The narrative we pick up from the little black history we learn in school is that Canada was the promised land at the end of the Underground Railroad. The truth is that Canada, like most of the colonies (and, by extension, Europe), was built using slave labour. Much of this labour was carried out by African slaves. This was happening during the same point when the original provinces were coming into existence, and yet even the existence of these slaves is omitted from the account.

Apparently slavery in Canada did not cease following abolition by the British Empire. The territory of Quebec signed specific articles during capitulation to England (ceding control of the territory of New France to the British empire) specifically carved out an exemption to allow people to keep their slaves.

Divide and conquer fails in Sierra Leone

With the reinforcement of the Maroons, the British were able to subdue the political uprisings for some time. However, as time went on, these two Black groups coalesced with the common objective of total liberation from White domination. (p. 50)

The establishment of Sierra Leone is a good lesson in understanding the current political reality within Africa. It is perhaps the first example of a corporate interest establishing de-facto colonial control, which it accomplished through the use of political destabilization and military might. Blacks from Canada were sent from one form of slavery to another, with the blessing of so-called abolitionists.

What I didn’t know was the story of the Maroons. A military unit from Jamaica (sent to Nova Scotia for fear that they could not be controlled), was dispatched to Sierra Leone to quell the attempts by black settlers to exert political power over their corporate masters. Evidently it didn’t work so well, since the Sierra Leone company had to cede control of their territory to Britain, having lost control. Since then, corporations have found more effective ways to enslave Africans.

Canada had Jim Crow segregation laws

The massive immigration of Black fugitives put a tremendous stress on the Ontario economy, and the level of discrimination against Blacks increased … Blacks faced segregated schools, restaurants, theatres, and hotels in Canada, as in the United States. (p. 52)

While I am more focussed on the mindless marginalization of black people that is a product of unexamined white supremacy, it is interesting to note that Canada has its own history of overtly racist laws. The purpose of these laws was to curtail any chance of economic and political actualization by black Canadians.

The most egregious example that I found was the description of an apparently notorious piece of legislation passed by the city of Edmonton, banning black people from living there. Yes, you read that correctly – being black was outlawed in Edmonton. But that was a million years ago, right? Nope – the law came into effect in 1911.

Canada had poll taxes

Major railroad companies supported the movement to restrict Blacks from the Prairies by either charging full fares for Black families or refusing to carry any Blacks at a time when the fares for White families settling the Prairies were routinely reduced or waived entirely. (p. 55)

One interesting argument that often pops up when talking to Americans about the merits of affirmative action programs and race-based scholarships is the assertion that soandso’s father worked his whole life to get ahead as an immigrant from (insert European country here). He certainly never got a handout or needed an affirmative action program! Blacks should just locate their bootstraps and start tugging!

What this argument neglects, aside from the monumental difference in the quantity and quality of anti-immigrant discrimination that whites received compared to blacks, is the many programs of the United States’ federal government to give large tracts of land to white immigrants but not to freed black slaves. Canada, it seems, has a similar history with which we must contend: the program of race-based preference when settling not only the Prairies, but Atlantic Canada as well.

Interestingly, black would-be-settlers of the Prairie provinces were subjected to additional medical “testing” to disqualify them from being able to settle in the west. The stated rationale was that blacks couldn’t survive the harsh winters, whereas whites were properly suited for the tough months*. This strikes me as remarkably similar to the poll taxes and phony “intelligence tests” that were used to disenfranchise black voters in the American South.

These facts paint a very different picture of Canada than the haven from slavery that I was taught as a child. The experience of blacks in Canada differs from that of their American counterparts only in terms of degree, not of kind. Any discussion of the history of Canada really should include this kind of information – not to make people guilty, but to recognize that the relative tolerance and progressiveness of Canada is not inherent in its people, but the result of generations of struggle.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

* I swear, the first person to mention Vitamin D in the comments is getting put into moderation, if not outright banned. I’m serious.


  1. Dianne says

    The stated rationale was that blacks couldn’t survive the harsh winters, whereas whites were properly suited for the tough months*.

    An interesting contrast to the rationale given for slavery in the US South, which was that blacks were strong and able to work in the fields whereas the more fragile whites might die under such conditions. No, I’m not sure why that was supposed to make slavery ok either, but it’s the verbage one finds in a lot of southern writing about slavery.

    It reminds me a bit of how men* talk about women: sometimes women are too fragile and stupid for work or politics or whatever, sometimes they’re too smart to want to (have a job, run for office, whatever), but the end result of the “women are more X than men” argument is that women’s choices are restricted. Regardless of whether men or women are overtly designated as the “better” group. It’s the same here: sometimes blacks are called stronger than whites, sometimes weaker, but the end result is always a restriction on black people’s options.

    *Yes, yes, not all men, etc.

  2. says

    It is, essentially, the search for an empirical reason to prop up an unjust inequality. We are becoming much better at unraveling that practice.

  3. says

    I get especially frustrated when people try to claim that Jim Crow laws were really SO LONG AGO, so shouldn’t we just shut up about it already? As if there aren’t currently unwritten restrictions based on race currently in effect? (Having to explain what a sundown town is and how I’ve seen evidence of these sorts of practices in my 20-some-odd year lifetime is maddening.)

    These are the kind of people who look at me in disbelief when I tell them about my mom’s horrified experiences in (airline) customer service with white South Africans who loudly proclaimed for all to hear that black people aren’t people. While laughing uproariously.

  4. says

    One of the things that I like to bring up, and will discuss in some depth next week, is the fact that here in Canada we only got rid of an officially racist immigration policy in 1961. Before that, the Canadian government had a purposeful objective of promoting white supremacy in Canada. This is, incidentally, within the living memory of roughly half of the MPs currently serving in the House of Commons.

  5. Dianne says

    I’d be more appalled if I weren’t pretty sure the US still has racist immigration policy and absolutely certain that it still has de facto racist immigration policy.

  6. Dianne says

    Ok, after shooting my mouth off (or whatever you call it on the internet), I went and actually looked up the law in the US: I’m wrong. The US abolished officially racist immigration policy in 1965, a mere 4 years after Canada. Which isn’t to say that we don’t still have US born citizens being “deported” for the crime of looking vaguely Hispanic.

  7. says

    As an American whose knowledge of Canadian history extends approximately to caricatures like, “haven from slavery”, and, “something something War of 1812”, I find this series really interesting. Please keep it up!

  8. says

    Wow, I had no idea Canada had such a racist history. Of course, being an American typically means saying “Wow, I had no idea about so-and-so’s history.”

  9. sambarge says

    As a Canadian-born child of Italian parents, growing up in the 1960s, I was reliably informed by my teachers that I wasn’t “quite white.” To be proper white, you hade to be northern European.

    Anyone who doubts Canada’s very recent openly institutional racist past just hasn’t been paying attention. Many racist laws were only overturned after being challenged under the Charter after 1987.

  10. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Apparently slavery in Canada did not cease following abolition by the British Empire. The territory of Quebec signed specific articles during capitulation to England (ceding control of the territory of New France to the British empire) specifically carved out an exemption to allow people to keep their slaves.

    The Slave Trade Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1807. However it only abolished the slave trade in the British Empire, but not slavery itself. It remained legal in the British Empire (except Britain itself) until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. That law abolished slavery throughout the Empire with the exceptions of “Territories in the Possession of the East India Company,” the “Island of Ceylon,” and “the Island of Saint Helena.” Slavery remained in effect for these places until 1854. Canadian slavery was abolished by the 1833 Act.

  11. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Slavery in Britain became prohibited as a result of Somersett’s Case, R v Knowles, ex parte Somersett (1772) 20 State Tr 1. Lord Mansfield’s decision in the case said:

    The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.

    Incidentally, it’s not true that Lord Mansfield wrote: “The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe.” This was said by Somersett’s barrister, Francis Hargrave, during his summation.

  12. JamesP says

    Reading this makes me furious at how lacking my education has been in this regard. I had no idea about any of this, none whatsoever. I knew that I was not taught enormous amounts (likely most of it) of history of white-aboriginal relations and all of the evils that go along with that, but at least that came up. Mistreatment of black Canadians, however, turns out to be orders of magnitude worse than I ever imagined. I simply have to read the book cited.

  13. says

    It’s a textbook, so it doesn’t make for exactly ‘light’ reading. Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (or really, anything he’s ever written) is a good way to get some of the stories without needing to sift through discussions of mixed-method sociohistorical analytical theory.

  14. irieagogo says

    @JamesP and Mr Crommunist~~~

    People with curious minds can find ways to fill in the gaps in our educations. When I read posts like this with reading recommendations I can locate at my library, I feel like I am subverting a plot to keep me in the dark.

    From another blog I found a reference to this book (Warning! When you click this link there is a picture of a man being tortured in a stress position, chained to a pole right on the home page):

    Reading it was a horrifying eye opener. “Jim Crow” and “chain gangs” are terms I’ve heard or read without actually understanding what they meant. This particular aspect of US post Civil War history was something I had never, ever heard about.

    When people want to ignorantly or disingenuously ask why African Americans might feel reparations are due for such long-past offenses as slavery, the point can be made that those offenses are not so long past at all. Families were torn apart; people used, killed, disappeared, quite recently. The cumulative effect of these events has had repercussions on the victims’ descendants. And the disproportionate incarceration rate of African Americans in the US might suggest that efforts to re-enslave continue to this day in a different iteration.

    Anyway, thanks for the post, going to look up this Hill book on my library website.


  15. Ace of Sevens says

    These sound like they’re both rooted in a racial essentialist concept that says white people are suited for cold climate and black people for hot ones, based on terrible generalizations about the climates of Europe and Africa. This let white people say they were smarter, because they had developed under the challenge of surviving winter, whereas Africa had year round growing and you could get away with relatively simple structures. It also gave white people an excuse to sit on their lazy asses and let black folks do the work in hotter climates. It wasn’t an inconsistent view, just a suspiciously convenient one.

  16. P Smith says

    In my history classes I was taught about “poll taxes” on Chinese immigrants, but not on other people. However, none of what was said in the post surprises me. I think I need a refresher course in history, or at least, other sources….


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *