Canada’s Slavery History

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When we think of slavery in the New World, it is often focused on the slavery seen in American history, but Canada has its own slavery history, which lasted for two centuries, ending only a few decades prior to the end of slavery in the United States.

This episode is not about the abolition movement, so there will only be brief mention of that as I focus mostly on Canada’s slavery history, not how that history ended.

While slavery did exist to some extent in Canada with the Indigenous prior to the arrival of Europeans, I am looking at the history of slavery in Canada beginning with the establishment of New France.

Slavery involving European powers in North America begins with the arrival of Europeans. It is believed that some of the Beothuk people of Newfoundland were taken as captives to Portugal around 1500, while Jacques Cartier abducted Indigenous people and took them to France, including the sons of Chief Donnacona in 1534-35. Cartier would bring the two sons back the next year, and then abducted Donnacona, the two sons and seven others. Donnacona and those abducted never returned to Canada.

Beginning in 1608 with the establishment of Quebec, New France would be a force in North America for the next 150 years. During that time, the colony governor and residents would trade in slaves, including Indigenous people. At one-point, Indigenous slaves outnumbered Black slaves two to one. The use of slaves would truly begin in earnest in 1632 but at the start slave ownership in New France was not legally recognized but justified that the act of enslaving people was unethical but buying and receiving slaves was acceptable. This meant that the acquiring of Indigenous slaves in France was done through diplomatic negotiations and the practice of gift giving. As a result, this changed the enslavement practice of the Indigenous people, with captives being taken during warfare in an increasing manner, becoming an economically viable goods to exchange with the French. Alliances between Indigenous groups would funnel slave captives towards the French, allowing the French to work within their muddy rules regarding slavery.

Having Indigenous slaves didn’t always work well for the French, especially when it came to treaty negotiations. When Jacques Denonville, the Governor of New France from 1685 to 1689, sent 40 captured Iroquois to France as galley slaves, this would later prove to be a major problem in peace negotiations during the Beaver Wars between France and the Iroquois. In a similar manner, Sioux chiefs in 1742 had issues with the French having Sioux slaves.

Typically, New France Indigenous slaves were young, with an average age of 17, while Black slaves had an average age of 25.

The first recorded Black slave arrived in Canada in 1628, transported by a British convoy to New France. Originally from Madagascar, the boy was named by his captors as Olivier le Jeune. This was a rare case of a slave coming to the colony at the time prior to the Black Code, also known as Code Noir or the Royal Edict of 1685. Olivier would live until May 10, 1654 and he would serve in the same household for 26 years.

One year later, the next enslaved African in New France to be mentioned was La Liberte, who appears in the 1686 census records.

The edict consisted of 60 articles that gave some protection to slaves, or at least was meant to. Under the edict, slaves could not make contracts, own land, testify or be sentenced publicly and since they were not considered an individual, they could not be charged criminally like citizens. If a slave was harmed or damaged, the owner was responsible for damages caused and if the owner did not pay damages, the slave was removed from his possession. While that may seem progressive, the edict also allowed an owner to whip or chain his slave, but he could not mutilate, kill or torture a slave. The Code saw slaves as merely pieces of furniture, but the owner was recruited to care for the slave if they were sick or injured, and had to feed and clothe for them, while also providing for crippled or aging slaves. Any marriage between a free man and a slave woman was not legally recognized and any child born was considered a slave child.

Also in the code was this, found in Article 32, “The runaway slave, who shall continue to be so for one month from the day of his being denounced to the officers of justice, shall have his ears cut off, and shall be branded on the shoulder. On the third offence, he shall suffer death.”

The reason that King Louis XIV granted the petition from New France to import black slaves from West Africa because there were 11,562 people living in the colony, and most were fur traders, missionaries and farmers. With a lack of servants and labourers, the population wanted to import the individuals to do that. At the time, slavery was prohibited in France but permitted in colonies because of the desire to have a large labour force to clear land and more.

One terrible tale of how black slaves were treated comes from the story of Marie-Joseph Angelique. She was the black slave of a rich widow in Montreal and after learning she was to be sold and separated from the man she loved, she set fire to her owner’s house and escaped. Unfortunately, the fire got out of control and destroyed 46 buildings. Two months later, she was captured and paraded through the city and then tortured until she confessed to the crime. On the day of her execution, she was taken through the streets of Montreal and then made to climb a scaffold built facing the ruins of the buildings destroyed by the fire. She was then hanged, and her body flung into the fire, so her ashes were scattered in the wind.

Between 1600 and 1750, 3.8 million slaves were transported from Western Africa to the Americas. Of those, 1,400 came to New France and African slaves were always outnumbered by the enslaved Indigenous population. Between 1689 and 1713, 145 Indigenous slaves and 13 African slaves were brought to New France. For the Indigenous slaves currently, the average age was 14 and 57 per cent were girls or young women. By 1759, there were 4,000 slaves and 1,200 were African in origin.

IN 1709, Intendant Jacques Raudot passed the Ordinance Rendered On The Subject Of The Negroes and the Indians Called Panis. This legalized the purchase and possession of slaves in New France and further solidified the practice of slavery. It was the first official legislation on slavery in New France.

In 1724, modifications were made to the Black Code. Under these modifications, slaves were to be instructed, baptized and ministers unto as a Christian, families were to be recognized and freed slaves received the rights of common citizens. This may seem great, but most colonists ignored the document and the code, and it was rare for a slave to become free. While the slaves under the French could be treated better than those under the British or Dutch, in the end the treatment of the slave was determined by the owner and their attitude towards the slave. Many enslaved Black people were tortured and jailed as punishments, others were murdered or hung for crimes they didn’t commit. Many Black women who were slaves were sexually abused by owners as well and families were separated when some family members were sold to new owners.

An example of this is seen the story of a black slave from Bath, Upper Canada who was tied to a tree and whipped. In Newfoundland, the community of St. John’s hired a public executioner to whip a black slave before a group of townspeople who came out to watch. In 1779, two black women were accused of threat and each received 25 lashes at a public whipping pole in Halifax. In 1791, a Cape Breton Black slave was killed by a white man for trying to walk into an all-white public hall and the murderer was, and this is the term they used, “honourable acquitted.” The only punishment he received was being excluded from the local Masonic Lodge.

The treatment of slaves as nothing more than furniture can be seen in advertisements at the time, including this one.

“To be sold at public auction on Monday, the 3rd of November at the house of Mr. John Rider, two slaves, a boy and a girl, about 11 years old likewise a puncheon of choice cherry brandy and sundry other articles.”

Another example of the treatment can be seen in the story of Marie Joachim.

Marie Joachim was an enslaved Indigenous who belonged to a wealthy merchant in Montreal. She had been brought to Montreal as a slave at the age of only 10, and in 1725 at the age of 22, she would be accused of stealing trade goods from her master’s warehouse with the intention of giving them to her French lover. She was sentenced to have her hands cut off but instead was sold to a new person in Quebec City, where she would die only a few years later.

Marie Marguerite was an enslaved Plains Indigenous who belonged to a naval officer in Quebec City. In 1740, when she was in her late-20s, she sued her owner for her freedom and this trial ignited a debate in New France about the legality of her enslavement. She would lose the trial and be sent to work on a Caribbean sugar plantation as punishment.

After the British conquest of New France in 1760, slave ownership was primarily done by the French population.

The topic of slaves was a big enough deal that it was included in the Articles of Capitulation that were signed on Sept. 8, 1760 at the surrender of Montreal. It would state:

“The Negroes and panis of both sexes shall remain, in their quality of slaves, in the possession of the French and Canadians to whom they belong. They shall be at liberty to keep them in their service in the colony, or to sell them, and they may also continue to bring them up in the Roman Religion.”

A total of 1,509 slave owners were identified around this time and 181 were English.

General James Murray, the British Governor of Quebec, would request the use of enslaved people for labour in 1763, stating “Had I the inclination to employ soldiers which is not the case, they would disappoint me, and Canadians will work for nobody but themselves. Black slaves are certainly the only people to be depended upon.”

In the 1767 census of Nova Scotia, there were 104 slaves listed but this would change during the huge influx of United Empire Loyalists in 1783 after the American Revolution. With them came 2,000 black slaves, of whom 1,200 went to the Maritimes, 300 to Lower Canada and 500 to Upper Canada. Due to this influx, legislation was passed in 1790 that protected immigrants so that the slaves they brought in would remain their property.

The Imperial Statute of 1790 would state that United Empire Loyalists could “bring in negroes, household furniture, utensils of husbandry, or clothing” duty-free.

There were differences between how slaves were treated in Canada and in the United States. In Canada, slaves were permitted to learn to read and write, something that was not done in the United States. In addition, at this point, marriages were recognized by law.

Nonetheless, it was still slavery and still terrible, no matter what limited freedoms slaves received. It was still the buying and selling of people, as was seen in this ad in the July 12, 1787 issue of the Quebec Gazette.

“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 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.”

Notice the use of “itself” rather than “herself”, showing that in the end, she was still seen as property.

Slave owners in Canada came in many varieties, with some owning a few slaves, and others owning many.

In 1752, the Halifax Gazette carried this advertisement.

“Just imported and to be sold by Joshua Mauger, at Major Lockman’s store in Halifax, several Negro slaves as follows. A woman aged 35, two boys aged 12 and 13, two of 18 and a man aged 30.”

Slavery would continue in various capacities in the British Empire until 1833 when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. This Act came almost three decades after the Slave Trade Act of 1807 that prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire but didn’t abolish the practice of slavery.

Father Louis Payet owned five slaves, one Indigenous and four Black, while James McGill, the man who founded McGill University, owned six Black slaves. The Deputy of the Indian Department, Matthew Elliott owned 60 Black slaves, while Sir John Johnson owned 14 Black slaves.

The owner of the Mallard House Inn, Thomas Mallard, where the first parliament of New Brunswick was held in 1786, owned several slaves. Peter Russell, the first receiver and auditor general of Upper Canada, had a free Black man named Pompadour working for him. Pompadour was a free man, but his wife and their three children were owned by Russell.

A huge number of politicians in Upper Canada, Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and other Legislative houses owned slaves, and I will list them here.

John McDonell, Ephraim Jones, Hazelton Spencer, David William Smith and Francois Baby, all members of the first parliament of Upper Canada Legislative Assembly from 1792 to 1796 owned slaves.

Six of the nine original members of the Upper House of the Legislative Council of Upper Canada owned slaves. They were Peter Russell, James Baby, Alexander Grant Sr. Richard Duncan, Richard Cartwright and Robert Hamilton.

A total of 14 of the 17 members of the second Parliament of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly from 1797 to 1800 owned black people or came from slaveholding families. They were David William Smith, Thomas Fraser, Richard Beasley, Richard North Wilkinson, Thomas McKee, Dr. Solomon Jones, Timothy Thompson, Robert Isaac Dey Gray, Samuel Street, Thomas Butler, William Fairfield, Edward Jessup Jr. and Christopher Robinson.

Members of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly were slave owners as well, including James DeLancey, Major Thomas Barclay, James Moody and John Taylor.

As Canadians, we often take a sense of pride in the fact that the Underground Railroad brought slaves to Canada to be free, but ironically many enslaved Black people would flee from Upper Canada to go to free regions in the United States, including New York and Vermont, which banned slavery in 1799 and 1777.

Escaped slaves were often reported in newspapers, like this notice:

“Ran away from her master, John Rock, on Monday, the 18th of August last, a negro girl named Thursday about four and a half feet high, broad set, with a lump over her right eye. Had on when she went away, a red cloth petticoat, a red bed gown and a red ribbon about her head. Whoever may harbour said Negro girl, or encourage her to stay away from her said master, may depend upon being prosecuted as the law directs, and whoever may be so kind as to take her up and send her home to her said master shall be paid all costs and charges with $2 reward for their trouble.”

In 1793, the Act Against Slavery was passed in Upper Canada, which banned the importation of slaves and mandated that children born to female slaves were to be freed when they reached the age of 25. This may seem like a big step forward and an example of how progressive Canada was, but that is not the case. It comes from the story of Chloe Cooley, who was a female slave who was violently removed from Canada for sale in the United States when her owner forced her into a boat on the Niagara River. This would help inspire John Simcoe, the Lt. Gov. Of Upper Canada to push for the abolition of slavery. This was resisted by members of the Legislative Assembly who were slave owners, so the Act which banned the importation of slaves was made as a compromise. It is estimated that at the time, six of the 16 members of the Assembly owned slaves. The Act specifically said that all slaves in the province would remain enslaved until death, no new slaves could come in.

Here are some advertisements in Upper Canada newspapers from that same year.

“Ran away from subscriber on Wednesday the 25th of June last a Negro manservant named John, who ever will take up the said Negro man and return to his master shall receive the above reward and all necessary charges.”

Another from August 17.

“Ran away from the subscriber a few weeks ago, a Negro wench named Sue. This is therefore to forewarn all manner of persons from harbouring said wench under penalties of the laws.”

Even after the end of slavery in Canada, racism abounded towards Blacks, Indigenous and many European immigrants as I have related in episodes on the Alberta Eugenics Board, the KKK in Saskatchewan and the story of Africville.

In 1846, Sir Richard Henry Bonnycastle would say that Canadian Blacks were “idle, impudent, uneducated people who could not bear a little freedom.”

In 1859, Victoria’s newspaper, The Colonist, would claim that Black people enjoyed heat because, and this is the quote, “they had hide thicker than a hippopotamus.”

Lastly, that same newspaper in 1860 said “Negroes are aliens of the lowest type of humanity.”

We can feel as though we have come a long way, but racism still exists and in Canada, other races are often treated differently, and deal with outright racism.

We as Canadians like to think that slavery was not a part of our history, but it was very much our history, whether we accept it or not.

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia,, Toronto’s People, Blacks in Deep Snow,

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