In My Opinion: The historical origins of Black Canadians

Author, former Toronto Poet Laureate, and former Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke shares his thoughts on the importance of Black Canadian history.


Founded in 1926 to honour the birthdays of the ‘Great Emancipator’ President Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14), the intent of Negro History Week was to try to dispel the 500 years of anti-Black propaganda used to justify the enslavement of Africans and the colonization of Africa and the (Black) Americas.

Expanding from a week to a month in the 1970s, these 28 or 29 February days are still dedicated to challenging stereotypes of Black iniquity and inferiority by replacing them with examples of Black Excellence, from antiquity to Nobel Laureates, Olympic athletes, Fortune-500 honchos, statesmen, and activists today.

So, one may praise Nefertiti and Beyoncé, Derek Walcott and Toni Morrison, Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X, Haile Selassie and Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey and Anita Hill, Olaudah Equiano and Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and Bessie Smith, etc…

Still, there is a significant omission in the foregoing list. Zero African-Canadians.

Because the United States is a superpower—in everything—including (pop) culture, African-American stars become global icons—Muhammad Ali to name one; such international fame is unlikely for Blacks from less-prominent climes, including Canada.

Indeed, Black History Month itself began so as to emphasize African-American history. Then, Black Canadians adopted February too (though, really, our month should be August).
While U.S. cultural pre-eminence highlights esteemed African-Americans, so that, for instance, U.S. anti-racism activist Rosa Parks overshadows Nova Scotia’s Viola Desmond (the visage on our $10 bill),

African-Canadians face yet another barrier: A Euro-Canadian penchant to practice “anti-racism” by erasing us.

White Canadian “anti-racism” often announces, proudly, “We don’t see race.” It seems laudable, but, in practice, it means that Black people get “disappeared.”

Moreover, if Blacks are “invisible” (despite being officially “visible minorities”), how can we complain of discrimination?

Another effect of Euro-Canadian “anti-racism” is to whitewash our history so that slavery, segregation, and anti-Black racism “never did”—and “do not”—happen here. So, when racist acts occur, they are viewed as weird, not as symptomatic of systemic bias.

That’s why Black Canadian history is necessary: To remind Canucks of our historical presence, struggles, survival, and successes.

The first Black arrived at Port Royal, Nova Scotia, in 1605. Gifted in languages, Mathieu Da Costa became a translator between French settlers and the Mi’kmaq.

Although colonial Canada’s climate made plantation slavery a non-starter here, forced labour was still essential to the colonial economy, mainly to provide prestige servants for aristocratic households, but also to perform much heavy-duty work in farming, forestry, and the fur-trade.

New France—colonial Québec—held the most slaves, about 5,000; however, only 2,000 were Black; the majority were Panis, the Indigenous people.

In 1734, Marie-Josephe Angélique was blamed for a fire that destroyed much of Old Montreal. She was tortured, hanged, her remains burned at the stake, and her ashes tossed into the St. Lawrence. Though she is unknown to most, she was colonial Canada’s most famous slave.

At Fortress Louisbourg in present-day Cape Breton, hundreds of enslaved Africans toiled there between 1713 and 1760 (when the Brits captured the fort).

But slavery came to mainland Nova Scotia in 1760, when Yankees—including Dixiecrats—brought hundreds of slaves with them to the Bluenose province to farm the lands of the exiled Acadians (who the Brits deported in 1755).

Halifax was founded in 1749; slaves were sold on its waterfront by 1750.

Enslaved Blacks were even present in Newfoundland: To help load cargo and fish bound for the Caribbean isles. (Thus, saltfish—cod—is a West Indian staple, while rum—Screech—became part of The Rock’s cuisine.)

African slavery was practiced in colonial P.E.I., New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Québec, and Ontario.

The system began to die in colonial Canada because of the arrival of 3,500 Black Loyalists to Nova Scotia from the fledgling United States of America. (Yes, 10 per cent of the Loyalists were Black!) Although 1,200 Black Loyalists left Nova Scotia in 1792 and were settled in Sierra Leone.

Hundreds of Jamaican Maroons were stationed in Nova Scotia, 1796-1800. The presence of so many free Black people allowed those who were enslaved to flee and find shelter.

By 1801, a New Brunswick court decision to return an escaped woman to her supposed master proved so controversial, that judges began to refuse to return escapees.
Slavery became a dead letter in colonial Canada—even before the British abolished it in 1834, on August 1—Emancipation Day—a date still honoured, especially in Ontario.

Helpful too was Governor John Simcoe’s declaration, in 1793, that no new slaves could be brought into colonial Ontario. Slowly, colonial Canada became a ‘Canaan’ for U.S. Blacks fleeing slavery. During the War of 1812, some 2,200 African-Americans (and Cherokee) landed in the Maritimes. (My matrilineal ancestors were among this group.)

Along with the remaining Black Loyalists and Maroons, they formed a culture that I dub “Africadian,” featuring several dozen Black villages (including Africville) in Nova Scotia, a distinctive church—the African United Baptist Association, and our own vernacular.

British Columbia’s part-Black Governor Sir James Douglas invited prosperous California Blacks to the colony. Eight hundred voyaged northward in 1848, anchoring in Vancouver, Victoria, and even on Saltspring Island.

Between 1830 and the 1861 start of the U.S. Civil War, up to 40,000 African-Americans came to colonial Ontario via the Underground Railroad. Owen Sound was the last “stop,” but many left the “train” in Essex County, settling in Chatham, Windsor, Buxton, Dresden (home of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Amherstburg, etc., but also in Niagara Falls, Saint Catharines, and Toronto.

After the Civil War, most African-Americans returned stateside. Thus, Canada lacks a “Black Belt” of Black settlements.

However, due to post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan terrorism in places like Oklahoma and Alabama, hundreds of African-Americans emigrated to Alberta and Saskatchewan to farm “free land.”

But Euro-Canucks—mainly Albertans—were so hostile to Black immigrants that Prime Minister Laurier passed secret “Orders-in-Council” barring any further Black migration to Canada.

The anti-Black rules lasted 50 years before they were dropped, and immigration from the Caribbean began in 1955.

And the rest is history.

— Upper Beach resident George Elliott Clarke teaches African-Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. His latest book is Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir (Knopf Canada).

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