Nova Scotia·Audio

What resistance looked like among enslaved people in Canada and the U.S.

The life of a Black woman born into slavery, whose resilience and love was later chronicled by her granddaughter, offers a window into how enslaved people resisted and persevered throughout history.

'To love anybody ... was itself an act of defiant resistance,' says Charmaine Nelson

Fugitive slave ads offer a glimpse into the lives of some enslaved people in Canada and the U.S., including how they resisted and defied the conditions forced upon them. (Nova Scotia Archives )

The life of a Black woman born into bondage, whose resilience and love was later chronicled by her granddaughter, provides a window into how enslaved people defied the oppression of slavery.

These are the histories of resistance that scholar Charmaine Nelson is highlighting ahead of Canada's second Emancipation Day on Aug 1

Aug. 1 marks the day — 188 years ago — when the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect, freeing about 800,000 enslaved people in most British colonies.

Governor Edward Cornwallis is known to have arrived in Halifax in 1749 with about 400 enslaved people, according to the Nova Scotia Archives.

"For so many enslaved people, to love anybody, especially another enslaved person, was itself an act of defiant resistance," Nelson, founding director of the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD, told CBC Radio's Mainstreet.

Nelson points to an 1861 autobiography by Harriet Jacobs called Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Through her words we learn about the resilience of her grandmother Molly Horniblow.

Charmaine Nelson is the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD University in Halifax, N.S. (Meghan Tansey Whitton)

Horniblow's life was marked by the physical and psychological brutality of slavery. She was freed for a time and fled to Florida with her mother only to be captured, sold back into slavery and separated from her family.

Later, when Horniblow had children of her own, they were divided up in a slave owner's will and taken from her.

To love anybody, especially another enslaved person, was itself an act of defiant resistance.- Charmaine Nelson

And yet, Nelson said she's struck by how Jacobs remembers her grandmother.

"She describes her as being such a positive woman, and having such a positive outlook and having a profound Christian faith, which she used to try to bolster her grandchildren who were in her care," Nelson said.

Resistance among enslaved people took many forms, Nelson added, including who they dared to love or how they showed anger and rage. 

"In that case too, for me, it's an act of resistance in a world where slave owners were on the table about saying listen —when I look at you person that I own — I expect to see a smile on your face," Nelson said.

LISTEN: Charmaine Nelson joins Mainstreet for a series about slavery and resistance:

Part One: What resistance looked like for enslaved people

What did resistance look like, before Emancipation, among people who had no legal right to control their own bodies? This is the first in a new Mainstreet series with Charmaine Nelson, founding director of the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD University.

Part Two: How one woman's love for her children defied the system of slavery

In this second conversation, Charmaine Nelson tells the story of a woman named Rachel, and how her love for one of her children defied the system of slavery they lived within. Charmaine is the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD University. Caution: this audio deals with disturbing situations.

Part Three: The economics of resistance

In this third conversation leading up to Emancipation Day, Charmaine Nelson describes how people defied their enslavers, and the logic of the systems that were used to justify slavery, enforce it, and increase its profitability. She's the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD University.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

Being Black in Canada highlights stories about Black Canadians. (CBC)

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet

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