An announcement of the sale of enslaved people in the Quebec Gazette, May 1785. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Re-conceptualization began in the 1960s as a result of antiwar and civil rights movements in addition to political and racial dissent giving rise to a cultural revolution and heightened consciousness which was reflected in nearly every academic discipline. The rise of social history throughout the 1960s and 1970s encouraged the examination of histories that were previously oppressed,ignored, or disregarded as a result of securing the Eurocentric narrative.Within this came a recognition of Canada’s history of slavery.

 The first slave arrived in New France in 1629 and was sold to the hands of a colonist Guillaume Couillard. As racial discrimination was widespread throughout Atlantic Canada during colonization, many believed that those with darker skin were inferior, allowing for the justification of people to own black and Indigenous peoples. Out of the approximate 4200 slaves in Canada from 1671-1834, around two-thirds were Indigenous. Many were captured during the war and sold to other Indigenous nations that were not their own or to European traders.

 During the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), black slaves in American colonies were offered refuge by the Crown if they were able to leave their rebel owners which resulted in the emigration of approximately 3500 slaves to Nova Scotia.Although some of them were manumitted they were considered to belong to the lowest part of society. Moreover, many loyalists who left during the revolution also brought their slaves across the border, expanding slavery throughout New France. Although it is widely recorded that slaves in Canada received more humane treatment than those who were held in other areas of the Americas,testimonies of brutality reveal that this was not always the case.

Slavery in Canada did not develop to fulfill economic and trade needs the way that it did in the south. Nonetheless, the nation’s connection to the institution of enslavement is revealed through the nation’s history of importing slave-produced resources such as rum and sugar from colonies in the Caribbean in exchange for Canadian resources such as fish and timber. Slaves protected and took care of their owners, developed the frontier, were domestic servants,and employed in businesses that were run by their owners. Slaves had no basic rights or freedoms and individual experiences varied. While some owners allowed their slaves to become literate, others were denied an education.

 Shortly after the fall of New France to Britain in 1760, the abolitionist movement in Britain gained traction and eventually made its way to British North America.While attempts were made to abolish slavery in Lower Canada, there was a significant amount of push back from colonialists and slave owners. Although a bill was passed in 1793 that limited slavery, strict rules, and loopholes were utilized by those who transported and owned slaves. The Slavery Abolition Act came into effect on August 1, 1834 which abolished slavery throughout the entire empire, which included British North America. While Emancipation Day is celebrated as a public holiday in many British ex-colonies, not all provinces in Canada commemorate the date.

< Back to The Hellin Learning Centre