Slavery's long shadow: The impact of 200 years of enslavement in Canada

Is there a connection between the enslavement of Black Canadians and their overwhelming presence in the criminal justice system today? The United Nations has sounded the alarm on anti-Black racism in Canada, stating it can be traced back to slavery and its legacy. In Part 2 of his series on slavery in colonial Canada, Kyle G. Brown explores the long-lasting ramifications of one of humanity’s most iniquitous institutions.

'We're still subjected to a heightened surveillance on the basis of our race, and where does that come from?'

Kyle G. Brown looks at slavery in colonial Canada in a two-part IDEAS series. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

Listen to Part 1 of this series: Canada's slavery secret: The whitewashing of 200 years of enslavement

**This episode originally aired Feb. 25, 2018.

The many faces of racism

From racial slurs to microaggressions, racism remains entrenched in Canadian society, and its root causes may reach further back than we think.

In Nova Scotia alone in recent years, there has been a cross-burning on the lawn of a mixed race couple, racist graffiti on the campaign signs of minority candidates in provincial elections and a noose tied to a Black teacher's classroom door

Figures released by Statistics Canada in 2017 revealed that hate crimes across the country rose for three consecutive years, with crimes targeting Black populations being the most common.

For historians like Afua Cooper at Dalhousie University in Halifax, these phenomena are all part of the legacy of slavery in colonial Canada.

"What slavery did in Canada was it made [the concept of] race," she says. "If we are looking at one of the legacies of slavery in Canada, it made white people white and Black people Black. And in doing so, it created Black inferiority, Black subjugation, white supremacy and white hegemony that we are still living with to this day."

Afua Cooper is James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University.

A number of measures cast this inequality into sharp relief. In Ontario, Black women are likelier than whites to be unemployed, despite having higher levels of education. Black children are more likely to be in foster care.

'Policing arose out of slave patrols'

Investigations of the Toronto and Halifax police forces found that Black Canadians are stopped and searched three times more often than white Canadians. 

Black people are being surveilled and over-policed and carded at a rate that is disproportionate to other people, especially white citizens.- Charmaine Nelson

Some historians trace this pattern back to slavery and segregation.

"Policing arose out of slave patrols," says Charmaine Nelson, professor of art history at McGill University.

"Black people are being surveilled and over-policed and carded at a rate that is disproportionate to other people, especially white citizens."

"So we're still subjected to a heightened surveillance on the basis of our race, and where does that come from? This is slavery," she says. "How do you think they could catch fugitives, if not to have networks of people who were willing to put their necks on the line to catch people for a reward?"

Former Canadian parliamentary poet laureate George Elliott Clarke was commissioned by IDEAS to write two poems for this series. Here is his poem On the Pro-Slavery (Canuck) Unconscious: A Sestina Denouncing Continued Oppression.

On the Pro-Slavery (Canuck) Unconscious: A Sestina Denouncing Continued Oppression

5 years ago
Duration 2:44
On the Pro-Slavery (Canuck) Unconscious: A Sestina Denouncing Continued Oppression

A 2017 report by the United Nations Human Rights Working Group called on Canada to recognize the lasting damage done by slavery and segregation.

It said these systems "lie at the core" of persistent, structural racism, which took hold during the 17th-19th centuries. French settlers and white Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution received plum political posts and large land grants, and their wealth and influence was passed down from generation to generation. Most of the first Black people living in colonial Canada were enslaved, and even after abolition, they were often landless and poor.

Post-abolition, it was the slave owners, not the slaves, who were awarded compensation — for "lost property." The ramifications of both the trauma of slavery and the massive wealth gap it created have reverberated across the generations.

Campaigners demand compensation to address the deep socio-economic divide. And in early 2018, Black history experts told a Senate committee on human rights that the government should apologize and pay reparations to descendants of slaves. This gesture, they say, would pave the way for the kind of reconciliation that has begun with First Nations.

Canadian governments have issued apologies and compensation to LGBTQ communities, victims of Japanese internment and families affected by the Chinese head tax.

Ottawa has yet to respond to demands by the descendants of slaves for reparations.

Additional note: A word on 'Canada'

This documentary chronicles slavery as it occurred "in Canada" prior to Confederation and 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 the 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: 

  • Afua Cooper is a poet, historian and the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies.
  • Brett Rushforth is chair of the history department at the University of Oregon. 
  • Camille Turner is a Toronto-based artist and activist.
  • Charmaine Nelson is professor of art history at McGill University and author of several books on slavery.
  • Cikiah Thomas is Global Afrikan Congress chairperson of the International Working Committee, who is campaigning for governments to issue an apology and reparations for slavery.
  • George Elliott Clarke is a former parliamentary poet laureate and E.J. Pratt professor of Canadian literature at the University of Toronto.
  • Natasha Henry is president of the Ontario Black History Society, and she develops curriculum resources that focus on African-Canadian history.
  • Vanessa Fells is public programming and outreach co-ordinator of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society. She provides extra-curricular history lessons in African and African-Canadian history in Nova Scotia schools.

Further reading:

  • Towards an African Canadian Art History: Art, Memory, and Resistance, Charmaine Nelson, Captus Press, 2018.
  • Policing Black Lives: State Violence from Slavery to the Present, Robyn Maynard, Fernwood Publishing, 2017.
  • Viola Desmond's Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land, Graham Reynolds, Fernwood Publishing, 2016.
  •  Canticles I, George Elliott Clarke, Guernica Editions, 2016.
  • The Journey Continues: An Atlantic Canadian Black Experience, Craig Marshall Smith, Black Green and Red Educational Products, 2012.
  •  Ebony Roots, Northern Soil: Perspectives on Blackness in Canada, Edited by Charmaine Nelson, 2010.
  •  Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada, Natasha Henry, Natural Heritage Books, 2010.
  •  Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature, George Elliott Clarke, University of Toronto Press, 2002.


** This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.