It happened here, too: the story of slavery in Canada

Sunday, April 20, 2014
An announcement of the sale of enslaved people which appeared in the Quebec Gazette, May 12, 1785. One of the horrors of slavery was that enslaved people were treated as property rather than as human beings.


Warning: this blog post contains sensitive material that may be disturbing to some readers.

When Canadians talk about slavery, we often point with pride to the role our country played in the mid-1800s as a safe haven for Americans escaping captivity via the Underground railroad.  But like the United States, our nation has its own history of slavery - and it is a history we should never forget.

Slavery in Canada predates the arrival of Europeans, with some Indigenous peoples enslaving prisoners taken in war. Europeans brought a different kind of slavery to Canada, however. Unlike Indigenous people, Europeans saw enslaved people less as human beings and more as property that could be bought and sold. Just as importantly, Europeans viewed slavery in racial terms, with Indigenous people and Africans serving and white people ruling as masters. 

The colony of New France, founded in 1608, was the first major European settlement in what is now Canada. Slavery was an accepted practice in the territory. When New France was conquered by the British in 1759, there were approximately 4,000 enslaved people amongst the 60,000 or so inhabitants of the settlement. The vast majority of them were Indigenous (often called panis) but Black enslaved people also existed as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.

The transatlantic slave trade helped shape the presence and role of slavery in Canadian history.  With the increasing use of African enslaved people in North America, a pattern of trade emerged that has since been called the “trade triangle.”  European merchants would leave Europe for Africa, travelling in ships laden with goods.  In Africa, they would exchange their goods for enslaved people and then transport them to the Americas, often in cramped and inhumane conditions.  In the Americas, the surviving enslaved people would be sold and then goods produced by slave labour would be carried back to Europe for sale.  Slavers saw their trade from a purely economic standpoint and viewed enslaved people as just another set of “goods” they could transport and sell.  With this mentality, slavers denied the fundamental human rights of millions of African men and women.

Map of the world highlighting african countries between Guinea and Namibia, Western Europe, Brazil, the Caribbean and South East USA. A triangle is traced between the 3 continents.

A map of the transatlantic slave trade. Millions of enslaved people were brought to the Americas through this route, and some of those people were eventually enslaved in Canada.

Slavery continued after the British conquest of New France, but Black enslaved people came to replace Indigenous people. Enslaved people made up a much smaller proportion of the population in Canada than they did in the United States, and this means that some of the worst traits of slavery there – the need for overseers, the horrible practices of forcing enslaved people to reproduce, and controls arising from fears of a uprising among enslaved people – did not happen in Canada.  It would be wrong, however, to suggest that enslaved people in Canada were well-treated.  The very nature of slavery meant that its victims were stripped of their basic human rights and exploited.  Defiant or troublesome enslaved people were often severely punished and physical and sexual abuse was always a very real threat. 

Enslaved people often resisted the institution of slavery themselves, by asserting their humanity in the face of a system that wished to deny it to them, by running away from masters or by assisting other runaways.  In fact, in 1777 a number of enslaved people escaped from Canada into the state of Vermont, which had abolished slavery in that same year.  By the late 1700s, attitudes to slavery among the free population were beginning to change.  On March 25, 1807, the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire - of which Canada was a part – making it illegal to buy or sell human beings and ending the transatlantic trade.  Slavery itself was abolished everywhere in the British Empire in 1833. Some Canadian jurisdictions had already taken measures to restrict or end slavery by that time.  In 1793 Upper Canada (now Ontario) passed the Anti-slavery Act.  The law freed enslaved people aged 25 and over and made it illegal to bring enslaved people into Upper Canada.  On Prince Edward Island, the complete abolition of slavery was pronounced by the colonial legislature in 1825, eight years before the Imperial abolition of 1833.     

The abolition of slavery allowed the British colonies in North America to become a safe haven for escaped enslaved people in the United States, with many making their way North via the famous Underground Railroad.  The story of the Underground Railroad is a positive moment in Canadian history, worthy of commemoration.   However, we must be sure to recall the darker chapters of our past as well.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights features information about Canada’s history of slavery, as well as about the work of those who operated the Underground Railroad for American enslaved people.

This blog post was written using research conducted by Mallory Richard, a researcher and project coordinator at the CMHR.