According to the 2006 Canadian Census, 2.5 percent of its citizens are of African descent. Many surmise that this represents people entirely emigrating from the US on the Underground Railroad, from the West Indies and Africa during the 19th Century to the present. Yet contrary to this popular perception, Canada’s history with Africans and their enslavement is a long one. As in every nation in the Americas, there was an African presence from the beginning of European exploration and conquest.

It is believed that Jacques Cartier had at least one African crew member. However, there is no doubt that in 1603, West African Mathieu de Costa, a resident of Portugal, arrived in what is now Nova Scotia. The record does not indicate whether he was free or enslaved, but documents do show that he traveled extensively with Samuel de Champlain, and was fluent in Dutch, French, Portuguese and English. With his language skills, he translated for Pierre Du Gua (Sieur de Monts) and the Micmac Nation. Another African was recorded in Port Royal in 1606 where he died of scurvy. Then there was a lull of twenty-two years according to the absence of any written data.

In 1628, the arrival of a 6 year old boy from Madagascar was noted. He was brought to New France by Englishman David Kirke, and in 1629 when Kirke left the colony he was sold as a slave to Oliver Le Tardiff, the leader of New France. In 1632, he was sold again to Father LeJeune of Quebec, baptized in 1633, and took the name Oliver LeJeune after his master. At 32 years of age Oliver died a free man. Between 1628 and 1759 approximately 1,200 enslaved Africans arrived in New France.

They came primarily from the French West Indies and the North American colonies. The ratio by gender was 40 percent female and 60 percent male. Africans from the English mainland colonies were traded by Native Americans. Because of the weather and conditions of the territory, these Africans worked as domestics, farm laborers and skilled artisans. They cleared the land and built structures for the most part. A gang or plantation system was not feasible in this colony’s economy. Their tasks closely resembled those performed by Africans in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies. Given the short growing season and the expense of feeding and sheltering workers for long idle months, only the wealthy owned slaves and then only in small numbers; rarely were there more that 20 Africans working in one household or farm.

The physical demands, poor nutrition, sickness and overall harsh living conditions experienced by the enslaved resulted in high death and low fertility rates. In contrast to elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, treatment among Africans in New France included allowing them to learn reading and writing, and the legal recognition of their marriages. Otherwise, their enslavement paralleled the treatment and abuse experienced throughout the Western world.

Native tribes became Canada’s primary domestic slave traders. Captive Africans traveled the Mississippi and St. Lawrence Rivers following traditional trade routes from Ohio and Kentucky into Canadian slavery. By 1685, New France enacted the Code Noir to address methods of controlling the enslaved population. These codes required all slaves to be instructed in Catholicism, but not any Protestant sects, and defined the conditions of slavery. However, they were labeled as servants, and masters were required to care for the sick and old. Whenever possible, the sick and old were given to Native traders to sell in the British colonies rather than become burdens to their Canadian owners. To enforce these codes, King Louis XIV that same year also officially allowed the colony to import Africans into the territory to ease the shortage of laborers and servants, although slavery was prohibited in France. The king forbade enslaving Native people. These actions insured an advantage, an almost monopoly, in the West African slave trade conducted by French merchants. Black slavery for his majesty was simply a profitable economic solution to the problem of labor shortage in the New World.

By 1688 the demand for slaves was so great in the colony that Governor Denonville no longer wanted to rely upon either French West Indian or Native American traders. Instead, Denonville requested permission from Louis XIV to import directly from Africa. The king refused. That would interfere with the established taxing system and threaten French control. He urged “Canadians to avail themselves of the service of African slaves.” All Negroes who were purchased or held should belong to the person owning them “in full proprietorship.” Ensuing royal decrees in 1721, 1742, and 1745 made it possible for slaves to be listed often with “personal effects and merchandise” in parish records, legal notices and official documents. There was no separate or distinct market for slave trading. Africans were simply sold regularly as chattel with all other goods and merchandise.

A marked change in the Black population, however, occurred in Canada during and immediately following the US American Revolution. All British Loyalists, Black and White, fled to Canada if they could not reach England. New France with the Treaty of Paris in 1763 had become a British territory. Some 3,500 enslaved Africans believing the English promises of freedom, land and protection, crossed into Canada even though slavery existed there. Halifax to this day is the community with the largest ratio of Blacks in Canada with 69.4 percent. Ten percent of the Loyalists who arrived in the Maritimes were Black. White Loyalists who came to Canada from the US by 1782 brought another 2,000 slaves; 1,200 were brought to the Maritimes that include Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Another 300 were brought to Lower Canada (Quebec) and 500 to Upper Canada (Ontario). There was so much confusion regarding the status of Blacks in Canada that in 1790 the Imperial Act was issued assuring the new US White immigrants and long time Canadian residents that their slaves would remain their property. It did not, however, address the status of many Blacks living in Canada who had escaped during the war and considered themselves to be free men and women.

Contrary to what many believe, for almost 165 years Canada was a slave nation, not a haven for Blacks – it was just the opposite. In fact, during the era of the American Revolution, from 1770 through the early 1800s, Blacks fled Canada to Vermont where slavery had been abolished.

Responding to pressure from abolitionists, religious organizations and Black Canadians, the area of Upper Canada (Ontario) enacted the Slave Act of 1793. It was the first region in the British Empire to restrict slavery. The province provided for gradual abolition by prohibiting future importation of slaves, maintaining enslavement till death of the current slave population, and requiring that any child born to an enslaved female after 1793 would be automatically manumitted at age 25.

Simultaneously, Sierra Leone had been established by Great Britain as a place to relocate England’s Black poor, including by definition African, Asians and the American Blacks who had joined the British army during the Revolutionary War. These fighters had been shipped with the other troops back to England by war’s end. But on January 15, 1792 as a means to address the free Blacks mostly from the US, 1,192 people left Nova Scotia after barely surviving years of freezing winters, destitution and ill treatment. They would eventually become the Sierra Leone creoles.

For the British, Nova Scotia was a virtual Black dumping ground. As Black US immigrants were being shipped to Sierra Leone in 1792, Trelawney Jamaican Maroons were transported to Nova Scotia. Their fierce resistance to enslavement and successful guerilla tactics mandated removal from the island as part of a peace accord. Continuing to resist submission and unhappy in Canada, they were shipped in 1800 to Sierra Leone as a British military unit – ironically to quell riots and rebellions fomented by the 1792 Nova Scotia families who objected to their living conditions in the new African colony.

An unsuccessful attempt was made in 1798 to repeal the Slave Act of 1793 and reinstate slavery and slave trading. By 1800 Quebec (Lower Canada) abolished slavery. The rest of Canadian history is better known, associated with the Underground Railroad and the country as a place of escape for US slaves. In 1852 the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada reported the “colored population” at 30,000 most of whom were fugitive slaves in Upper Canada (Ontario). By that time, African-Canadian slavery had been abolished for almost 30 years and black men had been granted the right to vote for 15 years.

Texts: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (2007)

The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal by Afua Cooper (2006)

Film: A Past Denied: The Invisible History of Slavery in Canada by Mike Barber