CBC airs eight-part documentary on history of Black people in Canada

Michaëlle Jean

Last Wednesday, CBC Gem began airing an eight-part documentary which examines the histories of Black people in Canada over 400 years. 

“Of course, Nouvelle France, [the] French Empire and the British Empire [were] colonial. And they were slavers,” stated the Former governor general Michaëlle Jean, an interviewee in the first episode titled Haven, But No Heaven.  

“Of course, Nouvelle France, [the] French Empire and the British Empire [were] colonial. And they were slavers,” Jean says in “Haven, But No Heaven,” the first episode of Black Life: Untold Stories.

“I am of Haitian origin. My ancestors were slaves. Three words resonated for them, and [they] came from the Enlightenment: liberty, equality, fraternity. These words were not meant for us Negroes, but they resonated in our flesh.”

Slavery was the norm in Canada for centuries. The first recorded enslaved person in Canada was a little boy who was given the name Olivier Le Jeune, whose sale was recorded in 1628.

Stories include the brutal trial and execution of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a young enslaved woman rumoured to have started a massive fire in Montreal in 1734, and Colonel Matthew Elliott, a loyalist who populated his immense farm in what’s now Amherstburg, Ont., with 60 enslaved people of African descent.

But amid the tragedies, there are also instances of hope and resilience, like the remarkable account of the Blackburns, a couple who escaped enslavement and persecution in the United States and unwittingly put Upper Canada’s new laws regarding slavery to their first-ever legal test. The principle established in their landmark case remains foundational to Canadian extradition law to this day.

Among the the interviewees are Michaëlle Jean, Afua Cooper.

“Haven, But No Heaven” is directed by Scarborough, Ont., filmmaker Alicia K. Harris, best known for her short film Pick, which won Best Live Action Short at the 2020 Canadian Screen Awards.

The episodes are: Haven, But No Heaven (Slavery); Revolution Remix (Civil Rights); Northern Beats (Music); Migrations (Immigration); Creation Insists (Arts & Literature); More Than a Game (Sports); Justice Denied (Activism), and Claiming Space (Settlements).