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News > World

200 Years a Slave: The Buried History of Slavery in ‘Tolerant, Progressive’ Canada

  • (L) Slaves being sold at an auction. (R) Protesters march in Ottawa for Abdirahman Abdi.

    (L) Slaves being sold at an auction. (R) Protesters march in Ottawa for Abdirahman Abdi. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Reuters

Published 10 April 2017

“The history of Black people on this land — from enslavement to today — is that Black people are monitored. That’s the Canadian way,” said Desmond Cole.

Almost three centuries ago, the city of Montreal blew up in flames. Houses, hospitals and hotels burned to crisp, leaving much of the city destroyed to nothing more than rubble and ash.

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As the city remained engulfed in the ashes, Marie-Joseph Angelique was plucked from her master’s home, taken to court, and charged with arson. Two months later, when torture broke her down in jail and she confessed to starting the fire, she was promptly dressed in a white chemise, placed in a garbage cart to be trucked to the Notre-Dame Basilica, and executed. Her body remained on display for two hours before it was placed on a pyre and burnt.

From the time she was taken and sold into slavery from Portugal to her last days in what is now Canada, Angelique has become iconoclastic in her rebellion. Her story, though not widely known, still places her as the bulwark of Black resistance and freedom in Canada, given that the history of slavery in Canada, too, is widely unknown.

For while Canada casts itself as the benevolent savior of fleeing slaves centuries ago and as a bastion of progress, multiculturalism and inclusion today — slavery existed there just as brutally and inhumanely as it did in the United States, while Black people remain just as disenfranchised and policed today.

A Forgotten History of Slavery

In Canada, when the issue of the history of slavery arises, the mic is passed to say that it existed centuries ago, that it was not as extensive as the system down south and that it existed only in pre-Confederate Canada, under British and French settler colonial rule.

“You offer that as if it’s rational,” Delia Douglas, a professor at University of British Columbia’s Social Justice Institute told teleSUR, speaking to these oft-repeated remarks.

“Canada,” added Douglas, in its ignoring of, “dispossession, genocide, enslavement, and violence in the creation of the nation-state, threads a racial narrative that is supported by institutions.”

And that narrative of safety, refuge and benevolence serves an exact purpose today.

“The exact same people who benefited from slavery, benefit from it today,” explained journalist and upcoming author Desmond Cole to teleSUR.

The history of slavery in Canada spanned two centuries in what was New France and Lower Canada under British rule. Black people were kept captive by people of all classes — from governors to priests, to blacksmiths, to tailors; and from figures such as Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, to James McGill, the founder of McGill University, one of Canada’s top universities. Introduced by French colonial settlers in New France in the early 1600s, it lasted until it was abolished throughout British North America in 1834.

“Slavery in Quebec was not some economic imperative, but rather a form of public extravagance which conferred prestige,” writes author Marcel Trudel in his book “Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage.”

Indeed, in 18th-century Quebec, then part of New France and now a province in Canada, slaves were a symbol of status — and unlike in the U.S. South, were more likely to be domestic servants than field laborers.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, New France held 4,200 slaves at its peak — and while about half were Black, half were also Indigenous. The Indigenous people captured as slaves by New France were mostly from the Pawnee nations of modern-day Nebraska, but were known as “pani” by the French settlers. Black slaves were categorized as either bois d’ebene, meaning “ebony wood”, or pièce d’Inde if they were deemed of higher importance.

On April 13, 1709, New France’s government passed a colonial law called “Ordinance Rendered on the Subject of the Negroes and the Indians called Panis,” which legalized the purchase and possession of slaves, making the practice widespread.

About five decades later, when the British conquered New France in 1760, the Articles of Capitulation, signed at the surrender of Montreal on Sept. 8, 1760, included a specific clause about enslavement, which stated, “The Negroes and panis of both sexes shall remain, in their quality of slaves, in the possession of the French and Canadians to whom they belong.”

British North America, then, saw the number of slaves increase exponentially. The government in 1790 passed the Imperial Statute of 1790, which allowed colonial settlers in the U.S. loyal to the British, to bring in “negros (sic), household furniture, utensils of husbandry, or cloathing (sic)” duty-free.

Anti-slavery legislation was finally introduced in Britain and received Royal Assent on Aug. 28, 1833. The Slavery Abolition Act then came into effect in all British colonies on Aug. 1, 1834, abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire, including British North America. The Act officially made enslavement illegal in every province and freed the last remaining slave in Canada.

Canadian Anti-Blackness Today

But while the formal system of enslavement ceased to exist in 1834, 183 years later, Black people remain policed, monitored and marginalized by state institutions.

While they make up only 3 percent of the population, they represent 10 percent of the people incarcerated in Canada.

“Anywhere you go across Canada, from Edmonton, to Hamilton, to Halifax, where Black people live in significant populations, they are harassed by police every day,” said Cole.

“The history of Black people on this land — from enslavement to today — is that Black people are monitored. That’s the Canadian way — you can have Black people, but you have to monitor (them).”

Just last year, the high-profile cases of the police killings of Abdirahman Abdi and Andrew Loku, both with mental illnesses, brought attention to the hyper-policing of Black people in Canada.

For Douglas, who works in academia, the glaring lack of diversity among faculty in Canada, is a big reason why the history of slavery in Canada isn’t widely taught through the education system.

“Eighty-seven percent of faculty (across Canada) is white,” Douglas stated. The lack of education and the state’s explicit erasure of these histories, she explained, is how “each generation is removed from that history and removed from that knowledge.”

A 2007 survey from the Data from Ethnic Diversity Survey found that 49.6 percent of Black people reported experiencing discrimination, compared to 35.9 percent of racialized people in general, and 10.6 percent of whites.

As Anthony Morgan wrote in the Toronto Star, anti-Blackness in Canada today manifests in a myriad of other ways as well, including through restricted access to housing, the child welfare system, discrimination in employment opportunities and the resulting disproportionate levels of extreme poverty.

Solidarity Brings Strength for Liberation

For Cole, Black liberation, then, cannot be watered down and made palatable to white supremacy — and Black-Indigenous solidarity is key to that liberation in Canada.

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He explained that in Toronto this time last year, when Black Lives Matter activists were holding a tent city to protest the police killings of Abdi and Loku, “Indigenous protesters were there the entire time.”

And when Idle no More organized protests calling attention the suicides of Indigenous youth in Attawapiskat, occupying offices of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, “Black Lives Matter protesters protested with them.”

“We don’t have the same fight, but we are stronger together,” he pressed.

If there are any lessons to be had from Angelique’s story, it’s that from the time she first resisted her slave masters orders, to groups like Black Lives Matter protesting today, Black liberation movements will continue their resolve for justice and dignity.

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