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Why Don't We Learn About Canada's History of Slavery?

By Amy Abraham


 

How a country can ignore and deny the existence of thousands of slaves speaks volumes to its notions of accountability. By focusing on the approximately 30-year period in which the Underground Railroad operated, Canadians erase the 200-year period in which Black and Indigenous peoples were enslaved on Canadian soil. History fails to teach that there were at least four thousand slaves in the territory that became New France/Quebec between 1685 and 1800. Recent scholarship estimates that there were another four thousand slaves in Canada after the French regime. A large percentage, but not all, of that increase in slave numbers came from mainland Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. However, the historical narrative surrounding Canada’s involvement with slavery focuses only on its role as a saviour for those escaping the southern United States.

Despite the efforts of many artists, novelists, and historians, slavery is still not thought by most Canadians to be an integral part of their collective history. According to Ken Donovan, a significant reason for this is that the country as a whole also takes great pride in being a multicultural nation that welcomes people of all races and creeds. Donovan attributes this heavily to the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the 1982 Canadian constitution because it reinforces Canada’s commitment to being an advocate for human rights. Offering safe haven to refugees has a long history in the territory that became Canada, especially since fugitive slaves came to the country from the United States after the end of the War of Independence, after the end of the War of 1812, and as part of the Underground Railroad later in the 19th century. Given this history of providing asylum to slaves and other refugees – and the emphasis within the country on individual rights – the study of slavery in Canada goes against the dominant image of Canada as a land of freedom.

Meanwhile, according to Harvey Amani Whitfield, the historian leading the scholarship on Loyalist slavery in the Maritimes, there are four primary reasons this field has been ignored. First, the history of black Loyalists fits neatly into the paradigm of American enslavement and Canadian freedom, which has been supported by the more recent framework of slavery to freedom in the Atlantic world. The experience of Loyalist slaves falls outside of this narrative that has been construed and leaves historians with a problem that cannot be easily understood or explained. Secondly, Whitfield explains there are differences between American versus Canadian historians. For American historians, the story of transnational black migration to Maritime Canada was a movement toward legal freedom, while Canadian historians, as Donovan points out as well, have been very hesitant to examine slavery because it conflicts with their image of Canada's history as free or nearly free of chattel bondage. Next, as Whitfield simply puts it, “the study of Canadian slavery is underdeveloped”. Whitfield believes that considering the advanced state of the historiography of American slavery it is shocking that Canada is not more developed. Historians have barely any knowledge of the basic contours of Maritime Canadian slavery, including who owned slaves, the relationship of slaves to the local economy, slave life, slave culture, and master/slave relations. Therefore, for historians, it seems as if investigating Loyalist slavery is a daunting task, which is further exacerbated by the variety of American slaves and masters who made up the Loyalist influx, ranging from East Florida to Massachusetts. This meant that there was not simply one single type of Maritime slavery to exist, but rather multiple slaveries that are difficult to disentangle and understand. The final reason is the most difficult to work around because it involves a lack of documentary evidence, furthered by sources that are often ambiguous. Most prevalent is the issue that the Loyalists regularly referred to their slaves as servants, and as Whitfield proves, without another piece of evidence such as a will or runaway advertisement it is nearly impossible to know definitively if they were enslaved.

Both Donovan and Whitfield’s theories display the sheer amount of excuses as to why slavery in Canada has been ignored, both by historians and by the population at large. While some of these reasonings, such as a lack of documentation are valid, the history of a country cannot be solely based on narratives of convenience, rather should demonstrate the truths of a nation. It is high time slavery, and Black history as a whole becomes Canadian history.


Want to learn about slavery in Canada?:

  1. Slavery in New France- Canadian Museum of History Website

  2. Whitfield, Harvey Amani. North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016.

  3. Cooper, Afua. The Hanging of Angélique. The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal. Toronto: Harper Collins, 2006.

  4. Trudel, Marcel. L’esclavage au Canada français: histoire et conditions de l’esclavage. Ste Foy: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1960.

Check out our last blog post for more Black History in Canada Resources!


Sources:

Donovan, Ken. "Slavery and Freedom in Atlantic Canada’s African Diaspora: Introduction." Acadiensis 43, no. 1 (May 1, 2014): 109-15. https://id.erudit.org/iderudit/acad43_1for01.

Whitfield, Harvey Amani. "Black Loyalists and Black Slaves in Maritime Canada." History Compass 5, no. 6 (2007): 1980-997. doi:10.1111/j.1478-0542.2007.00479.x.




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