Black People Were Enslaved In Canada


The Code Noir , meaning “Black Code,” is the corpus of French laws that defined and governed the lives of enslaved and free African people who inhabited French colonial territories, primarily in the Americas but also in the islands in the Indian Ocean.

The Code Noir , meaning “Black Code,” is the corpus of French laws that defined and governed the lives of enslaved and free African people who inhabited French colonial territories, primarily in the Americas but also in the islands in the Indian Ocean.

The enslavement of black people in Canada has got to be one of the best kept secrets that I have come across because I am a 58-year-old black man who came up through the civil rights movement and supported the fight for the end of apartheid in South Africa and thought that the only role Canada and Canadians played in the African slave trade was that of a safe haven for escaped slaves fleeing from the USA to freedom on the underground railway. How could Canada hide this vital part of its history and keep it from being told?  I have written posts on the plight of our First Nation’s People and Inuit People; I have written about the mistreatment of the Japanese, the Chinese and all of the immigrants that immigrated to Canada and even the tearing down of Africville and the forced relocation of the one time slaves who sought refuge in Canada and settle in Nova Scotia, but never have I written about Afro Canadian slavery, because I never heard a word about it until today, while doing research for a post I am writing in another blog about Quebec’s recurring use of Black Face.

 Slavery in New France: You will never find the term Code Noir in any of the history books used in the curriculum of any k-13 schools in Canada, but we had the Code Noir in New France.  In 1628 the first recorded slave in Canada was brought by a British Convoy to New France.  Olivier le Jeune was the name given to the boy originally from Madagascar. His given name resonates with the Code Noir. Although loosely established, the Code Noir forced baptisms and decreed the conversion of all slaves to Catholicism.  In 1688, the population of New France was 11,562 people. Fur traders, missionaries, and farmers settled along the St. Lawrence Valley and there was a shortage of laborers. To help overcome the labor shortage of servants and laborers, King Louis XIV granted New France’s petition to import black slaves from West Africa. While slavery was prohibited in France, it was permitted in its colonies as a means of providing the massive labor force needed to clear land, construct buildings and (in the Caribbean colonies) work sugar plantations. New France soon established its own ‘Code Noir,’ defining the control and management of slaves. The Code in 1685 set the pattern for policing slavery. It required that all slaves be instructed as Catholics and not as Protestants. It concentrated on defining the condition of slavery and established harsh controls. Slaves had virtually no rights, though the Code did enjoin masters to take care of the sick and old. The blacks were usually called “servants,” and the harsh gang system was not used. Death rates among slaves were high.  What hypocrites we Canadians are to sit in judgement of others who openly used and admitted to the use of slavery to build their countries and their economies and how we admonish them for the brutality of the African Slave Trade and keep locked away in our closet stories like Marie Joseph Angelique‘s.

Marie-Joseph Angelique, was the black slave of a rich widow in Montreal.  In 1734, after learning that she was going to be sold and separated from her lover, she set fire to her owner’s house and escaped. The fire raged out of control, destroying forty-six buildings. Captured two months later, Marie-Joseph was paraded through the city, then tortured until she confessed her crime. In the afternoon of the day of execution, Angelique was taken one last time through the streets of Montreal and after the stop at the church for her amende honorable mounted a scaffold facing the ruins of the buildings destroyed by the fire and there was hanged, then strangled until dead, her body flung into the fire and the ashes scattered in the wind.  It was generally accepted that Angelique was guilty of the crime of which she was accused. However, it has recently been argued that she was, in fact, innocent of the crime and convicted more on the basis of her reputation as a rebellious runaway slave, than on the basis of factual evidence. Another theory is that she was guilty of the crime as an act of justified rebellion against slavery.

Slavery in British Canada: Black slaves lived in the British regions of Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries — 104 were listed in a 1767 census of Nova Scotia, but their numbers were small until the United Empire Loyalist influx after 1783. As white Loyalists fled the new American Republic, they took with them about 2000 black slaves: 1200 to the Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island), 300 to Lower Canada (Quebec), and 500 to Upper Canada (Ontario). The Imperial Act of 1790 assured prospective immigrants that their slaves would remain their property. As under French rule, Loyalist slaves were held in small numbers and were employed as domestic servants, farm hands, and skilled artisans.  It is said that the Canadian form of black slavery was not as brutal and did not employ the system of gang labor and its institutions of control and brutality as what was happening in the USA, because the slaves of Canada seemed more docile and no danger to their masters.  There also seems to be a trend to down play the Canadian version of black slavery as some how kinder, because it slaves were permitted to learn to read and write and because Christian conversion was encouraged and their marriages were recognized by law; a kind of black slavery with perks.

In 1793 Chloe Clooey, in an act of defiance yelled out screams of resistance. The abuse committed by her slave owner and her violent resistance was witnessed by Peter Martin, a former slave, who brought the incident to the attention of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. Under the auspices of Simcoe, The Slave Act of 1793 was legislated. The elected members of the executive council, many of whom were merchants or farmers who depended on slave labor, saw no need for emancipation. The Assembly passed the Act Against Slavery that legislated the gradual abolition of slavery: no slaves could be imported; slaves already in the province would remain enslaved until death, no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada and children born to female slaves would be slaves but must be freed at age 25. To discourage manumission, the Act required the master to provide security that the former slave would not become a public charge. The compromise Slave Act of 1793, stands as the only attempt by any Canadian legislature to act against slavery. This legal rule ensured the eventual end of slavery in Upper Canada, although as it diminished the sale value of slaves within the province it also resulted in slaves being sold to the United States. In 1798 there was an attempt by lobby groups to rectify the legislation and import more slaves.

By 1800 the other provinces of British North America had effectively limited slavery through court decisions requiring the strictest proof of ownership, which was rarely available.  Slavery remained legal, however, until the British Parliament’s Slavery Abolition Act finally abolished slavery in all parts of the British Empire effective August 1, 1834.  Around the time of the Emancipation, the Underground Railroad network was established in the United States, particularly Ohio, where slaves would cross into the Northern States over the Ohio River en route to various settlements and towns in Upper Canada (known as Canada West from 1841 to 1867, now Ontario). This is Canada’s only relationship to slavery generally known to the public or acknowledged by the Canadian government.

Historian Marcel Trudel has documented 4,092 recorded slaves throughout Canadian history, of which 2,692 were Aboriginal peoples, owned by the French, and 1,400 blacks owned by the British. Those slaves were owned by approximately 1,400 masters altogether. Trudel also noted 31 marriages took place between French colonists and Aboriginal slaves.

The act of pretending Afro Canadian Slavery did not happen is perhaps one of the cruelest, most insensitive things that I have learned about Canada and its past and present leaders.  If a crime against humanity is not acknowledged like the forced relocations of our First Nations People and Inuit, the internment of the Japanese in concentration camps in Canada, the mistreatment of Chinese people then no apology can be given like these abused people have received from a nation and a government ashamed of its history of atrocities.  There will be no grand apology ceremony for the Afro Canadian Slaves ancestors, because the government is still pretending that it did not happen.  I understand the resurgence of Black Face in Quebec now and the attitude of government towards black people in general.  Black people are the dirty laundry of Canada not yet washed, the secret in the closet waiting to be exposed and represent the unraveling of the myth that Canada did not engage in the African Slave Trade.

I sit here a little shocked, disillusioned and surprised.  Shocked that in all of Canada’s name calling of others that no one has leaked Canada’s dirty little secret. Disillusioned, because I thought that the one thing, the one saving grace that Canada had that other colonies of France and Britain did not, was that Canada’s only involvement in the African Slave Trade was that it had been a place of refuge for the American black fleeing slaves and that we as a country did not take part in the African Slave Trade, by owning slaves.  Surprised that through all of the marches, speeches that I attended not once did the subject of Canadian black slave ownership ever arise.  What is up Canada?

The Act Against Slavery was an anti-slavery law passed on July 9, 1793, in the first legislative session of Upper Canada, the colonial division of British North America that would eventually become Ontario.

The Act Against Slavery was an anti-slavery law passed on July 9, 1793, in the first legislative session of Upper Canada, the colonial division of British North America that would eventually become Ontario.

Timeline and facts from Wikipedia.

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