“People in Canada don’t think we have any black history,” says celebrated journalist Desmond Cole in the documentary, The Skin We’re In. “Except maybe the Underground Railroad.”
Many Canadians focus on the history of slavery in the United States and, in comparison, Canada’s history doesn’t seem as bad. “It allows us to say, ‘As long as we’re not as bad as [the US], we never have to talk about what happened in our own country,” he remarks.
But in The Skin We're In, Cole talks about it. He explores the racial tensions in Canada, where they’ve come from and why they’re still here.
One of the places Cole visits is Birchtown, Nova Scotia — a small town with a deep racial history.
The birth of Birchtown
During the American Revolution, the British offered any enslaved individual freedom and land if they fled their American masters and picked up arms to fight for Britain. About one-fifth of the black American population at the time took advantage of the offer, writes Historia Canada.
In the wake of Britain’s defeat in 1783, a stream of Loyalists arrived in Shelburne County on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. Many, mostly the white Loyalists, settled in Shelburne, while the majority of Black Loyalists sought refuge less than 10 kilometres away, in Birchtown.
Freedom didn't mean equality
Black loyalists quickly learned that gaining freedom — for those who got there — didn’t mean they were any closer to equality.
Many of the land grants they were promised by the British never materialized, were delayed or were in much less desirable locations than the land given to white Loyalists.
With no land and hardly any possessions, many Black Loyalists were “exploited as a source of free labour by the provincial government,” according to an article by The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
In some cases, Black Loyalists were “forced into indentured servitude, frequently in conditions that were startlingly similar to the slavery from which they had escaped,” writes Historia Canada. Many others were kidnapped and sold back into the slave system in the United States or as far away as the Caribbean. “Though it never developed the plantation economy of the American South, Nova Scotia was undoubtedly a slave-owning society.”
The first recorded race riot
Many white Loyalists also fled to Shelburne with hardly any money and few possessions after Britain’s defeat in the American Revolution. Their land grants were also delayed and many people were forced to work as labourers.
Any dismay white Loyalists had with the British administrators was quickly directed towards the Black Loyalists sharing the same town. Free Black Loyalists were often willing to work longer hours and for less pay than their white counterparts.
The racial tensions rose quickly.
On July 26, 1784, around 40 white Loyalists went to black Baptist preacher David George's home “armed with hooks and chains seized from ships,” according to a blog post by Historica Canada.
George was a preacher in Shelburne who baptized white Loyalists — inflaming racial tensions. Despite the threats on his life, he continued to preach.
The angry mob tore down the houses of 20 other free Black Loyalists living on the church’s property. The mob also attacked George, beating him senseless, according to the Black Loyalist Heritage Society. He eventually gave up the fight in Shelburne and escaped to Birchtown.
The riots continued for 10 days and reportedly spread to Birchtown. A large complement of British soldiers and a naval frigate were eventually brought into town to “maintain order”.
It was the first recorded race riot in North America.
Relocating to Sierra Leone
Within years of the riots, the economy started to crumble. Many of the Black Loyalists moved to other towns in the province.
By 1791, any remaining residents of Birchtown were given the opportunity to resettle in a new colony in Sierra Leone. After living through the tense conditions in Birchtown, at least half the residents took up the offer, including George, many of the town’s other leaders, teachers and religious organizers.
It is estimated that around 225 African Nova Scotians currently live in Birchtown and the surrounding area, according to African Nova Scotian Affairs. The town is also home to the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre, a 10,000 square-foot museum dedicated to telling African-Canadian history.
For more on the history and current state of racism in Canada, watch The Skin We’re In on Firsthand.
The lead image of the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre was provided by Communications Nova Scotia