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Slavery in Canada Between 1685 and 1834

The Culture Alliance in the Heart of Georgian Bay encourages all Canadians to consider some of the Black history that has shaped Canada. I am not Black, nor do I have any Black ancestry; this is simply what I discovered as I tried to learn more.


The first Black person thought to have set foot on what we now call Canada was Mathieu Da Costa, a free man hired by Europeans to act as an interpreter. The first enslaved African to reside in Canada was a six-year-old-boy who was the property of Sir David Kirke in 1629. During his lifetime, this child was sold several times before being sold to Father Paul Le Jeune, at which time he was baptized Catholic and given the name Olivier Le Jeune. He was designated a historical figure by the Quebec government in 2020 and recognized as a person of national historical significance by the federal government in 2022. This is because he is the first noted Black person to be baptized, attend a school, and become a prisoner. He died in his early 30s and spent twenty-five of those years as a “domestic,” commonly used in Quebec documents from this period to designate slaves.


Louis XIV passed Code Noir on March 1, 1685 which permitted slavery for economic purposes only and established strict guidelines for the ownership and treatment of slaves, and even though it was not proclaimed in New France, it was used in customary law. By 1689, Louis XIV gave limited permission for the colonists of New France to keep Black and Pawnee Indigenous slaves. Unfortunately, by January 1, 1709, Louis XIV formally authorized slavery, when he allowed his Canadian subjects to own slaves “in full proprietorship”. By 1760, the British conquered New France and part of the “Articles of Capitulation” stated that Blacks and Pawnee ‘Indians’ would remain slaves.


Chloe Cooley was enslaved in Upper Canada, but on March 12, 1793, she was violently tied and taken with force across the Niagara River to be sold in New York. Because slavery was not widespread in Upper Canada, Canadians were shocked by this incident. This terrible action and the outcry it created led Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe to pass the “Anti-Slave Trade Bill” on June 19, 1793. Although it was not a total ban on slavery, it was leading to a gradual prohibition.



In 1794, based on their military service in the war between Great Britain and America, 19 free Blacks in the Niagara area petitioned Governor Simcoe for a grant of land to establish an all-Black settlement. This petition was rejected. However, in 1819, the government established the Oro Settlement. In 1838, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was built in Oro Township. It still stands today with renovations taking place over the years, with the most recent updates in 2016. In 2002, this church was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.


Canada played a major role in the Underground Railroad and between 1815 and 1865, tens of thousands of African Americans sought refuge in Upper and Lower Canada. In 1819, Attorney General John Beverley Robinson openly declared that residence in “Canada” made Blacks free. While slavery remained legal in all British North American colonies until 1834, the combination of legislative and judicial action put pressure on the government to challenge the status quo. The last known private advertisements for slaves appeared in Halifax in 1820 and in Quebec in 1821.



The Slavery Abolition Act, 1833 finally considered Black people British subjects, paving the way for property-owning Black men to vote. Unfortunately, racism and discrimination at polling stations meant many did not cast their ballots. Finally, effective August 1, 1834, an Imperial Act was passed that formally freed slaves in British North America.


On March 24, 2021, the House of Commons voted unanimously to designate August 1 as Emancipation Day. This marks the actual day in 1834 that the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into force.



Read more about the Black History Timeline in the Canadian Encyclopedia at https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/timeline/black-history

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