Black History In Canada
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Owen Sound's Black History

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Black History In Canada


There have been Black residents in Canada since the country’s earliest days of settlement. Some were explorers; others were slaves who arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even more arrived from the United States as fugitives fleeing the bonds of slavery during a time period roughly covering from 1835 to 1865, the end of the American Civil War.

An estimated one-fourth of the Blacks captured in Africa, destined for a life of slavery, died en route crammed under horrible conditions in the holds of ships, never reaching the New World.

The slaves captured for the North American market were not randomly captured and then sold to plantation owners. Many plantation orders placed specific orders for skilled slaves who already knew how to harvest rice, sugar and indigo. Most of the slaves who were transported were intelligent, skilled, cultured and already had their own firm set of spiritual beliefs. They were also skilled in the areas of blacksmithing, textiles, art and crafts. Many of these “secondary” skills remained hidden from the plantation owners.

Slaves first arrived in North America in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia. Originally, both Black and white indentured servants served in the new American colonies. In Massachusetts, changing laws allowed white servants the opportunity to buy their freedom and live equally among other whites. These laws, however, did not apply to Blacks and, by 1755, the thirteen colonies all legally recognized slavery as an institution.

Blacks in Canada

The first known Black in Canada is Mathieu de Costa, in 1608, an interpreter to the Micmac Nation. The first known slave in Canada, Oliver Le Jeune, is recorded in 1628. He had been captured in Africa as a child, at six years of age, and was transported to Canada by English invader, David Kirke. He was sold to a Canadian resident when Kirke left in 1629. Baptized in 1633, he was given the last name of one of his owners, who was a priest. Le Jeune died in 1654.

From 1628 to 1759 (when the British conquered New France), 1132 slaves were transported to New France, all of African descent. In 1688, Governor Denonville’s request for royal permission to import slaves directly from Africa was denied. A direct slave trade from Africa to Canada was never established.

Slavery in Canada remained virtually nonexistent, due to a short growing season and the economic impracticality of housing and feeding idle slaves over the winter months. Most of the slaves were “body” or family servants for wealthy officials or for families living in urban areas. Unlike the large plantations in the South, where a large number of slaves were owned, Canadian households tended to have one slave only or, at the most, a very small number. Slaves usually served the same family during their lifetime. Very few slaves were in the Owen Sound area during the eighteenth century; most tended to be south, in the Niagara area. The majority of slaves in Canada originated from either the French West Indies or the colonies of British North America. Of the total brought to Canada, about 40% were female and 60% male.

With the fight for independence from the British in 1776 came an awareness of the slaves in the colonies; the antislavery movement began to take hold in the Northern colonies. Slaves who fought in the war against the British were granted their freedom, creating a fairly substantial class of free Blacks in both the North and the South. Yet again, freedom for Black American citizens was not equal to that of free whites; there were still limitations place on them.

In 1779, all Black men, women and children were invited to fight for the British against the Americans in the American Revolution; they were promised their freedom in return. Ten percent of the Loyalists that arrived in the Maritimes at this time were Black. White Loyalists fleeing to Canada brought with them about 2000 slaves. The majority (about 1200) of Blacks settled, with their owners, in the three Eastern provinces of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. About 500 were in Ontario (Upper Canada) and 300 in Quebec (Lower Canada). Here, too, slave numbers per household were small and most were domestic servants, farm hands and skilled artisans.

The Upper Canada Abolition Act

In 1793, the Upper Canada Abolition Act, supported by Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe, freed any slave who came into Ontario (Upper Canada), and stipulated that any child born of a slave mother would be free at the age of 25. Upper Canada became the first British territory to pass an antislavery act. In the other Canadian provinces, by 1800, slavery was effectively limited through various court rulings. The onus was on the slave owner to provide positive proof of ownership; this proof was rarely available.

Slaves were treated differently in Canada from their counterparts in the United States. Gang labour with its accompanying brutality did not exist in Canada. Canadian masters did not feel threatened by their slaves. Canadian slaves were allowed to learn to read and write, while in the States it was illegal to teach slaves to do so. Slave marriages were legal and Christian worship was encouraged. Upon arrival in Canada, the first thing free slaves often chose to do was to reaffirm their slave marriage vows according to Canadian law.

All Blacks, whether in slavery or freedom, found a sense of community through their strong spiritual faith and in their churches. Here, too, under the teachings of Christianity, plantation slaves were able to gather together and exchange information through coded phrases and spirituals of which their white owners were unaware.

Returning from the War of 1812, American soldiers took with them the knowledge of Canada’s virtual lack of slavery. This information enticed many slaves to make a bid for freedom. In Canada, by 1841, there were many Black communities. An 1850 Sandwich newspaper article stated there were 24-30,000 Blacks living in Canada.

The British Imperial Act

In 1833, the British Imperial Act abolished slavery in the British Empire (including the Canadian colonies). The Act became effective on August 1, 1834. There is only one recorded instance in Canadian history of the law failing to protect a Black refugee. In the case of escaped slave, Archy Lanton, two Canadian magistrates conspired with US officials in his secret capture and transportation back to his owner in 1856. Both Canadians immediately lost their posts.

In 1850, a second Fugitive Act passed in the United States made life even more difficult for those of African descent, even the free Blacks in the Northern States. They could be kidnapped and sold as slaves in the South. The Underground Railroad became busier as more slaves sought their freedom. In February 1851, the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada was founded.

As the American Civil War raged, pro-slavery arguments claimed freed slaves would be unable to fend for themselves and contribute to society, that they were helpless unless under the direction of a white master or overseer. This opinion began to falter when a study of free Blacks living in Canada was concluded. In 1864, Dr. Samuel G. Howe presented a report to the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission in Boston. The report was based on a study of 20,000 Blacks living in Canada and the successful consequences living in an atmosphere of justice, opportunity and freedom.

As quoted from the report,

“[The] refugees earn a living and gather property; they marry and respect women; they build churches and send their children to schools; they improve in manners and morals—not because they are picked men but simply because they are free men.”

Many former plantation slaves returned to the States after the end of the civil war in 1865.

Post Slavery

Even with the abolishment of slavery, freed slaves were subject to being treated as second-class citizens and, until the Irish migration, seen as an inexpensive form of labour. Blacks continued, and still continue, to face racial discrimination and prejudice based on the colour of their skin. Over the course of the twentieth century, laws were passed in both the Canada and the United States outlawing segregation in neighbourhoods, schools, restaurants, buses, public washrooms, theatres and other venues formerly off limits to Blacks. Other laws were passed making it illegal to turn down anyone for employment based on skin colour.

The legacy of slavery lingers, however, to permeate society on many levels. It is only within recent years that Black history and the role Blacks played in the shaping of society has been acknowledged and has slowly begun to be added to the chronicles of Owen Sound’s and Canada’s history.

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