News / Canada

Canada's secret slave-owning past revealed

You've heard this story before, a group of slaves escape for freedom in the middle of the night. But, here's the twist: These slaves weren't running towards Canada, they were running away from it.

They were fleeing from Canadian slave owners and headed for freedom in Detroit.

The brutal depiction of life for U.S. slaves is back in the spotlight thanks to the Oscar-nominated film 12 Years a Slave. While American slavery is having its moment in Hollywood, the story of Canadian slaves — whose lives were as unjust and inhumane as those in the south — has largely been ignored.

"We tend to think of it as 'not in my backyard' myth about slavery," says Delorean Kilen, project coordinator at the Ontario Black History Society. "People don't remember that slavery existed here because we've been 'slave-free' longer than the U.S."

Slavery existed in Canada for 200 years and was officially abolished 30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation order was issued by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.

Historians believe there was an estimated 4,000 slaves who were forcibly brought to Canada, either directly as property, or shipped through the trans-Atlantic slave trade from other British colonies.

In 1793, Upper Canada outlawed importing slaves and the practice was officially abolished in 1833 alongside the rest of the British Empire.

"It's something that people don't want to talk about and not comfortable talking about," says Natasha Henry, a historian and educator. "Slavery was used as a tool for both [British and Canadian] colonies. "By ignoring that we're not portraying a complete history of Canada."

Rosemary Sadlier is one of many Canadians whose roots reach back to pre-Confederation. Her mother's family can be traced to 1840, while her father's ancestors arrived in New Brunswick in 1793.

"Everyone assumes that everyone who is black is a recent immigrant, but there are thousands of black Canadians who have been here since the founding of the country," says Sadlier, an author and recipient of the Order of Ontario.

"In my younger years I didn't come away with a real sense of my family's historic contributions to this country and I think there's a way that we are made to feel to various measures that we aren't the same, we haven't paid our dues, we're visitors in someone else's country,” she says.

“When you have something like black history it changes all of those stereotypes because you can't be an unwelcomed visitor in a country that's your own."

Charmaine Nelson, an art historian and professor at McGill University, believes a heavy dose of corrective action is needed to educate people who see slavery as only an American experience.

"We don't ever want to take credit for slavery in Canada so we have to keep it out there in the tropics or the U.S.," she says.

Photos and portraits that depict slavery in Canada are not easily found or publicized, which adds to the difficulty Nelson and other educators have when talking and teaching the public about this stain on our nation’s history.

A painting originally called Portrait of Negro Slave is one of the few items that gives a face to slavery in Canada. The name of the portrait was controversially changed to Portrait of a Haitian Woman.

“The renaming in effect expels slavery from Montreal and Quebec, rendering it only a troubling history of tropical colonies like Haiti and not one of immediate concern to Canadians.”

Here are just a few of the many black Canadians who helped define and shape our country.

Photo Gallery

  • Malcolm Taylor/The Canadian Press

    Measha Brueggergosman is a Juno award-winning Canadian soprano opera singer and recipient of prestigious Canada Council and Chalmers Performing Arts grants.

  • This picture shows Harriet Tubman in a photograph dating from 1860-75. Tubman was born into slavery, but escaped in 1849, and helped hundreds of slaves escape via the Underground Railroad to Canada.

  • Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

    Former governor-general Michaelle Jean.

  • dam Pretty/AUS /Allsport

    A close up of Donovan Baily of Canada looking on during the Men's 100M Event for the IAAF World Championships at the Commonwealth Stadium. He is the first Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal in the 100m sprint.

  • Torstar News Service

    Former Ontario lieutenant-governor Lincoln Alexander was first black Member of Parliament in Canada and former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.

Here are some common myths about slavery in Canada debunked.

Slavery never existed in Canada, right? 

FACT: Many Canadians are under the assumption that slavery never existed in Canada (or not at the same levels found in the U.S.), which is false. The first recorded slave to arrive in Canada was a six-year-old boy named Olivier le Jeune from Madagascar in 1628. Most slaves were imported from other British colonies and the Americas.

Was Canada the first country to abolish slavery before other parts of the world followed suit?

FACT: Although slavery in Canada was officially abolished in 1833 politicians enacted legislation in 1793 that would set limitations on slavery in the country. The bill meant slaves would secure their freedom at 25 if born a slave, which was no help to most since the average lifespan of a slave was 20 to 25 years.

Weren’t all black slaves who escaped to Canada from the U.S. afforded all the civil liberties enjoyed by other European Canadians?

FACT: Despite the warm and fuzzy images and scenes displayed in most current-day slave narratives, black slaves who escaped to Canada faced discrimination, violence and segregation. Unlike racist laws that were found in the U.S. (think: Jim Crow), Canada had largely unwritten racist codes, which many could argue made it more difficult for black people in Canada.

Slaves who escaped north lived out the rest of their lives in Canada

FACT: Some former slaves left Canada for the U.S. once slavery was abolished in America to escape difficulties in Canada and for chances at upward mobility afforded to them by moving to cities with higher black populations. Entire generations of black Canadians were completely lost to Canadian history by moving to the U.S.