The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

The little-told history of Canadians as slave owners, not just slave rescuers

McGill professor Charmaine Nelson studies what is known as the fugitive slave archive — a collection of advertisements for escaped slaves. Ms. Nelson says we must understand our history of slavery, to confront racism in Canada today.
'Portrait of a Haitian woman', by Quebec artist François Malépart de Beaucourt, 1786. The woman portrayed in this painting was a slave owned by the artist and his wife. (McCord Museum)

Originally published on December 8, 2017.

When it comes to the history of slavery in North America, Canadians have long had a superiority complex.

We take pride in the story of the Underground Railroad, a network of abolitionists who helped thousands of escaped slaves flee from the United States to Canada, to gain their freedom. 

McGill art history professor, Charmaine Nelson. (Submitted by Charles Michael)
Charmaine Nelson says Canada was not so innocent, and that we, too, were a slave-trading country.

Professor Nelson is an art historian who has been researching and documenting a trove of detailed information called the fugitive slave archive. She teaches at McGill University in Montreal and says she has yet to meet a Canadian student who is aware that we were also slave owners.

"Usually, they are quite shocked, but what's really revealing is they've all been trained in the recitation of Canadians as good abolitionists," says Nelson. "So what's been enshrined in our curriculum — and often they've been taught this since about grade two — is 1833 to 1861, that period after Britain abolished slavery up until the beginning of the American Civil War, when African Americans and enslaved people were fleeing north."

Professor Nelson is the first person to conduct a comprehensive analysis of this archive: advertisements in Canadian newspapers about slaves who escaped from their owners. They offer insights about the slaves — such as their physiques, skills, trades and linguistic abilities — while revealing critical information about the way they were treated by their owners.

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Some examples of advertisements about slaves who escaped from their owners:

Ignorance of this chapter of Canadian history comes at a cost, says Nelson. She draws a straight line from our history with slavery to modern-day racism.

"For me as a scholar, I see this as a legacy of slavery: things like practices of carding, stop and frisk that you've seen in New York in the past and that you've seen in places like Toronto," says Nelson.

"In the period of slavery, enslaved people — if they wanted to move around freely — they needed a pass from their owner, literally a written document that they carried with them to say such-and-such an owner has allowed me to move around a certain space for a certain period of time. So this idea that black people are not afforded, do not have the right to have the same mobility as white people, that we're not fully citizens, goes fully back to the period of transatlantic slavery."

The year 1833 was not the turning point that blacks hoped it would be, says Nelson. "Slavery gets abolished, it's no longer legally allowable to own another human being, but racism does not disappear. It just changes form."

Currently, Charmaine Nelson is on secondment as the William Lyon McKenzie Chair for Canadian Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge.
Portrait of a Haitian woman by François Malépart de Beaucourt, 1786. (McCord Museum)

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.