New Brunswick

'Our history has been covered up': Facing New Brunswick's past on slavery

While not as prevalent, or well known, as in other regions, the slavery of Black people does have a history in New Brunswick.

Province doesn't 'have an innocent history' says sociologist

Afua Cooper, a poet and sociologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the extensive history of slavery in the United States leads Canadians to not think about this country's history of slavery. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

The enslavement of black people has a hidden history in New Brunswick.

That was the message that Afua Cooper, a poet and sociologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, hoped to impart during her trip to Fredericton Tuesday.

"[New Brunswickers] don't have an innocent history," said Cooper.

"Until we can know as much as we can know, then we are sort of living a lie."

While New Brunswick's history of slavery may not have been as widespread as in the United States and the Caribbean, it was real enough for the individuals who lived through it.

Cooper said having the United States next door, which had a much more public history of slavery, has led to some in Canada ignoring truths in their own country.

"Oftentimes as Canadians we project onto the United States, and 'oh they're bad, they have racism and they do this and they do that bad stuff,' but we also have that history," said Cooper.  

"The difference is that our history has been covered up."

Hidden shame

An ad printed in a newspaper offering a $12 reward to anyone catching an escaped slave named Lidge and a canoe he took with him. (Sylvia D. Hamilton/Excavation: Memory Work exhibition)

One of the reasons for the disconnect may be a lack of primary source documents about slavery in the province.

Fred Farrell, the director of the Provincial Archives, said the stories that are known show a poor life for slaves in the province. Farrell calls the stories "dramatic" and "heart-rending."

Often the only documents surviving about the experience of slaves were not written by the slaves themselves.

"Oftentimes the only trace of them shows up in court cases or newspaper ads for if they escaped, or the owners are trying to continue to hold on to them," said Farrell.

Still, there are some concrete connections between slavery and New Brunswick.

Nancy's court case

Afua Cooper recalls the story of Nancy, a slave who lived near Fredericton.

Afua Cooper talks about the history of black slaves in New Brunswick and shares stories through a poetry reading during Black History Month. 0:47

Her last name is not known as slave owners often didn't give their slaves a last name, and any last name Nancy did use has been lost to history.

"We know the story of Nancy, who took her owner Caleb Jones to court," said Cooper.

"It went to the New Brunswick Supreme Court in 1800 and she sued her owner for her freedom … The judges sided with her owner."

Maugerville

While it may be a shock to many living in the area, the name Maugerville has ties to a man who sold slaves.

The community just east of Fredericton was named after Joshua Mauger.

Mauger was born in Jersey, a British Crown dependency off the coast of Normandy, France.

He was a businessman who made most of his wealth while living in Halifax as a merchant.

It was his career as a merchant that would connect him to slavery, Cooper said.

"He also brought enslaved people, black people from the Caribbean, to sell them in Halifax," she said.

Hard life continued

Fred Farrell, the director of the Provincial Archives, said that even after slavery ended life for Black New Brunswickers wasn't easy. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Slaves were not the only black people to come to live in the province.

Free Black Loyalists also moved into the area, but they faced hardships as well.

While the British empire outlawed slavery in 1833, nominally freeing the entire black population of New Brunswick, life for black New Brunswickers was not easy.

"Some of the settlement areas were very poor quality land and just almost impossible to make a living off of," said Farrell.

"There's no question that they struggled mightily. Even those who were free were still economically deprived."

With files from Catherine Harrop