We love our tales about how Canada offered sanctuary to U.S. slaves for decades, but the unabridged version is it sustained African bondage for much longer.
For over 200 years, New France and the British North America colonies held Africans in bondage. The first recorded slave sale in New France took place in 1628. There were at least 3,000 African slaves in what are now known as Québec, Ontario and the Maritimes.
After conquering Quebec, Britain strengthened the laws that enabled slavery. Guarantees were given to slave owners that their property would be respected.
It wasn’t until 1833 that slavery was abolished in what is now Canada and across the rest of the British Empire.
Canadians propped up slavery in a number of other ways. Canada helped the British quell Caribbean slave rebellions, particularly during the 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution, which disrupted the region’s slave economy. Much of Britain’s Halifax-based squadron arrived on the shores of the West Indies in 1793, and many of the ships that set sail to the Caribbean at this time were assembled in the town’s naval yard.
A number of prominent Canadian-born (or based) individuals fought to capture and re-establish slavery in the French colonies. Dubbed the “Father of the Canadian Crown,” Prince Edward Duke of Kent departed for the West Indies aboard a Halifax gunboat in 1793. As a Major General, he led forces that captured Guadalupe, St. Lucia and Martinique.
Outside of its role in suppressing Caribbean slave rebellions, the Maritimes literally fed the slave system for decades. Additionally, Canadian’s economy was firmly linked to African slavery through the building and sale of slave ships, the sale and purchase of slaves to and from the Caribbean, and the exchange of timber, cod, and other food items from the Maritimes for West-Indian slave-produced goods.
A central component of the economy revolved around providing the resources that enabled slavery. Nova Scotia and Newfoundland generated great wealth selling cheap, high-protein food to keep millions of “enslaved people working 16 hours a day.”
In Capitalism and Slavery, post-independence Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Eric Williams highlights the role of cod in the Caribbean plantations: “The Newfoundland fishery depended to a considerable extent on the annual export of dried fish to the West Indies, the refuse or ‘poor John’ fish, ‘fit for no other consumption.’” High-quality cod from today’s Atlantic Canada was sent to the Mediterranean while the reject fish was sold to Caribbean slave-owners.
From 1770-1773 Newfoundland and Nova Scotia sent 60,620 quintals (one quintal equals 100 pounds) and 6,280 barrels of cod to the West Indies, which comprised 40 per cent of all imports. These numbers increased significantly after the American Revolution resulted in a ban on U.S. trade to the British Caribbean colonies. In 1789 alone 58 vessels carried 61,862 quintals of fish from Newfoundland to the Caribbean Islands.
When it comes to our histories, we choose where and how to focus our lens. A bird’s eye view of the historical landscape quickly reveals that Canada did a great deal more to support African enslavement than undermine it.