Canada's slavery secret: The whitewashing of 200 years of enslavement

Why is it common knowledge that Canada was the terminal stop on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves from the U.S., but few know that Blacks and Indigenous peoples were bought, sold and exploited right here? Contributor Kyle G. Brown asks how slavery went on for 200 years, and yet is one of the least talked about aspects of our history?

Our collective silence amounts to an 'erasure of Blackness,' says historian

Hiding two centuries of slavery requires some effort, and it is a collective silence that historian Afua Cooper calls the 'erasure of Blackness.' (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

**This episode originally aired June 28, 2018.

The 'erasure of Blackness'

Canada's towns, parks and universities abound with statues and street signs that have immortalized our "founding fathers." But there is no sign of the men, women and children that some of these powerful men enslaved.

Small wonder then, that many of us today are unaware that Indigenous and African peoples were forced into bondage across colonial Canada. 

Hiding two centuries of slavery requires some effort, and it is a collective silence that historian Afua Cooper calls the "erasure of Blackness."   

There's perhaps no better symbol of erasure than an invisible cemetery. 

Former Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke was commissioned by IDEAS to write two poems for this series. Here is his poem Snow-Job: Why is Black Slavery "Whited Out" in Canadian History? An Incorrect Sestina.

Snow-Job: Why is Black Slavery “Whited Out” in Canadian History? An Incorrect Sestina

5 years ago
Duration 3:00
Snow-Job: Why is Black Slavery “Whited Out” in Canadian History? An Incorrect Sestina

An invisible cemetery

A field outside the village of Saint Armand, close to a dozen slaves are said to be buried near a large whale-shaped boulder. (Kyle G. Brown)

Every year the Black Coalition of Quebec organizes a grim pilgrimage to an unmarked grave. About an hour from Montreal outside the village of Saint Armand, close to a dozen slaves are said to be buried near a large whale-shaped boulder.

Little is known of the people enslaved by the Luke family — loyalists who fled the United States in the 1780s. And while the family cemetery still stands — its tombstones bent with age — their slaves left behind a trail of disappearing clues. 

Ploughing these fields in the 1950s, a farmer's tractor ground to a halt — on human bones.  Elsewhere, they might have been studied and carefully preserved. But these remains were tossed aside and lost. 

Oral history has it that they are the bones of the Luke family slaves. This is backed by the preliminary findings of Quebec anthropologist Roland Viau.

Once pointing to these vast rolling fields was a sign that read "Negro Cemetery." It too is now gone. The sign was removed, replaced, and removed again, as though to extirpate the remnants of an embarrassing past.

Beyond the thick woods of Saint Armand, our history has been camouflaged across the country. ​

What does it take to erase 200 years of history from the collective consciousness of a nation?- Charmaine Nelson, McGill Professor of Art History

Slavery is seldom featured in Canadian museums, except to extol the virtues of Canadians who helped runaways escaping north. The theme gets short shrift even at a museum named after the owner of at least 17 slaves: François Baby House in Windsor

A 19th century Upper Canada official, François Baby is among hundreds of slave owners listed in the Dictionnaire des Esclaves by late historian Marcel Trudel. 

Contemporary texts from the period tell at length of the swashbuckling heroes of colonial conquest, but say little of the people they colonized and enslaved. 

Or they showcase the Underground Railroad — networks of activists who provided help and refuge to slaves fleeing plantations in the southern U.S. for free states and colonial Canada, where slavery was abolished by the British Empire in 1833. 

The Underground Railroad was active for approximately 30 years, succeeding a much longer and less glorious era. 

"Canadian slavery transpires over 200 plus years," says Charmaine Nelson, an art history professor at McGill University. "So what does it take to erase 200 years of history from the collective consciousness of a nation, but to enshrine three decades?"

Slavery is Canada's best-kept secret

Canada has burnished its reputation as the terminal station of the Underground Railroad, a safe haven for runaway slaves. Generations of Canadians have grown up with the idea that slavery somehow stopped at the American border. 

Historian Afua Cooper says slavery is Canada's best-kept secret. (Kyle G. Brown)

And that notion is still operative, as captured by this documentary in a surprising moment when Prime Minister Paul Martin admits he never knew the extent of of institutional slavery in colonial Canada. Another former PM, Stephen Harper, has also said famously — or infamously — that Canada has "no history of colonialism."

As Afua Cooper says, slavery is Canada's best-kept secret. 

What Nelson calls our "strategic ignorance," harks all the way back to slave-owners themselves, whose selective diaries were replete with euphemisms like "servants" and extended family.

The slaves themselves were silenced. They worked so hard that they died at 20 years old or so. If ever they had time to collect their thoughts, they could scarcely record them for posterity. Masters often prohibited them from speaking their own languages. They stripped them of their original African and Indigenous names, and assigned French and English names, effectively wiping out their identity. 

Now a small but growing number of scholars is unearthing court records, local registries and a host of archives to get a glimpse into the less luminous chambers of our past. 

Thanks to these historians, who are building on the work of pioneering figures like James Walker and Marcel Trudel, at least part of that erasure is being reversed. 

Additional note: A word on 'Canada'

This award-winning documentary series chronicles slavery as it occurred "in Canada" prior to Confederation and therefore refers to colonial Canada. Since the 16th century, settlers, officials and historians have used the term "Canada" — often interchangeably with other names, from New France and British North America, to Upper Canada and Lower Canada. 

Kyle G. Brown is a freelance journalist based in Paris. He has filed for radio, print and television, from the BBC and CBC to Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and Le Monde Diplomatique. He specializes in human rights and development issues.

Guests in this episode:


Further reading:

  • The Black Loyalists: The search for the Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870, James Walker, University of Toronto Press, republished in 2017.
  • North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes, Harvey Amani Whitfield, UBC Press, 2016.
  • Canada's Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage, Marcel Trudel, translated by George Tombs, Véhicule Press, 2013.
  • Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature, George Elliott Clarke, University of Toronto Press, 2012.
  • Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France, Brett Rushforth, University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
  • Ebony Roots, Northern Soil: Perspectives on Blackness in Canada, Ed. Charmaine Nelson, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.
  • The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.


**This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.


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