The Canadian Narrative about Slavery Is Wrong

Casting ourselves as the “saviours” of African American fugitives fits neatly into our national identity. But this country, too, was founded on exploitation

A fugitive slave ad that appeared in the Quebec Gazette.
An advertisement that appeared in a May 1794 issue of the Quebec Gazette, offering a reward for the capture and return of a slave. | Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québèc

On a Saturday morning in February 1786, an enslaved black man named Joe broke out of a Quebec City prison. Five days later, the sheriff took out a fugitive slave ad in the Quebec Gazette, the newspaper run by Joe’s owner, William Brown. Ubiquitous across the Americas, fugitive slave ads featured detailed descriptions of the runaway’s face, body, clothing, manner of speaking, and even gestures and expressions. They were placed mainly by white slave owners, who offered a reward for the fugitive’s capture and return.

Joe, described as an African-born “Negro man” and “the property of Mr William Brown, printer,” was fluent in French and English. He was also different from other enslaved people in the province, who, at the time, were primarily Indigenous. A smaller group—comprising about a third of the enslaved population—was African Canadian, African American, or African Caribbean, some having arrived as “secondary cargo” in the merchant ships filled with hogsheads of rum, sugar, and molasses that traded along the established Atlantic routes. Joe, born in Africa, was a minority within a minority.

That we know about Joe at all is largely due to his skills as a breakout artist. Six fugitive slave ads published between 1777 and 1786 document five of his escapes, the last of which resulted in two notices. Yet we know from Brown’s own papers that Joe actually escaped more than the five times documented in the advertisements. Fugitive slave ads reveal details only about successful escapes: if an enslaved person was recaptured prior to the printing of the weekly paper, the owner had no need for such a notice. The announcements are also some of the earliest instances of fake news: given that slave owners sought to incentivize the public’s participation in the capture and return of the fugitive, they commonly printed “evidence” of crimes. For example, when, on April 29, 1794, a middle-aged “Negro Man” named Isaac fled from Azariah Pritchard Sr., Pritchard’s ad, placed almost a month later, claimed that “said Negro has been guilty of theft and many other misdemeanors.”

It should now be obvious that the sale and auction—and escape—of enslaved Africans and Indigenous people were regular occurrences in Quebec and Ontario, as well as in various Maritime provinces. We don’t only have the repositories of newspaper notices to prove this; we also have bills of sales, personal correspondence, business ledgers, court cases, cemetery and hospital records, estate inventories, and wills. This material reveals important information about the lives of the enslaved and the enslavers, and the practice of slavery in the territories that became Canada.

So why don’t Canadians know anything about this history? My university students are a case in point: in my fifteen years as a university professor, I have yet to come across one student who has entered my classroom already knowing that slavery existed here. What they have all been schooled in, without fail, is that white Canadians were valiant abolitionists, who freed the northward-bound African American enslaved people through the nineteenth-century networks known as the Underground Railroad.

The stories of good white Canadians as the “saviours” of fearful, hunted, and tormented African American fugitives fit neatly into our national identity as a racially tolerant, multicultural society. But the existence of Joe reminds us that this country was itself founded upon the strategic exploitation of certain populations. Canada, in other words, is a country that was built on large-scale racism. Thousands had their lives, health, hopes, cultures, families, and dreams stolen from them, while labouring tirelessly for the betterment and prosperity of a white elite.

To understand slavery in Canada, one must contemplate the physical and psychic abuses imposed upon the enslaved, which include whipping, branding, and the banning of African culture, such as music and language. Canadian owners also sought to control the enslaved on a biological level. By imposing a matrilineal order, any child born to an enslaved female assumed the mother’s status, instantly becoming the property of her owner. While many white, male owners fathered mixed-race children through rape or coercive relationships, they also exploited black people as “breeders” of new property through forced sexual pairings.

Renaming was another way to demean Africans. After having purchased slaves, an overseer often stripped them of their names, imposing whimsical, comical, or humiliating ones instead (like Hercules, Cesar, or Monkey). Many examples of this practice can be found in the repository of fugitive ads, too. When, in 1794, Michael Wallace of Nova Scotia placed a notice for the return of a “Negro Man Servant . . . named Belfast,” he conceded that the fugitive called himself Bill. Likewise, when, in 1789, an enslaved woman named “Philis” escaped from Abel Michener of Falmouth, Nova Scotia, a fugitive ad revealed that she called herself Betty.

Although slavery was abolished by British parliament in 1833, racism persisted in Canada. The structural inequalities that sustained slavery for 400 years could not be abolished by a mere act of legislation—they lived on in the hearts and minds of white Canadians who fought to retain sole control of political, legal, social, and cultural institutions. It would take more than a century for government to outlaw racial discrimination. The cases of Fred Christie, denied the right to service at a Montreal bar in 1936, and Viola Desmond, man-handled out of her seat in a New Glasgow, Nova Scotia cinema in 1946, are just two examples of overt racial bias against black Canadians—one century after slavery had ended.

In neither case were the establishments marked with conspicuous signage separating whites from “coloureds,” as had been in the case in America at the time. That’s simply not the way Canadians have sustained racism in this country. Our methods are arguably more insidious and covert.

There is a cost to forgetting the history of slavery in Canada. One consequence is that Canada tends to see its black population as the product of recent immigration. Many of us are sick of being asked, “Where do you come from?”—a question that seems to assume the answer could not be Saskatoon, Kamloops, Halifax, or Toronto. Some black Canadians have ancestral roots that date back centuries in this nation, and yet blackness is still equated with foreignness.

Black Canadians are regularly treated as outsiders and subjected to unjust employment tactics, unequal access to healthcare and housing, police brutality, and over-policing—despite the fact that many white Canadians associate such realities only with the United States. As a recent Toronto Star investigation concluded, black people “with no history of criminal convictions” are three times as likely to be arrested by Toronto police for “possession of small amounts of marijuana than white people with similar backgrounds.” Desmond Cole, a black journalist and activist, has rightly pointed out that black people make up less than 10 percent of Toronto’s population, but they account for at least half of all people killed by the police since the 1980s.

Joe’s abuse at the hands of his slave owner and the state has not disappeared; it has merely taken on twenty-first-century forms, often disguised by our carefully cultivated and internationally celebrated image as a “good” nation. While Joe’s “crime” was the act of stealing himself from his owner, the “crimes” for which blacks are racially profiled today in Canada have merely changed to include “driving while black,” “walking while black,” and “shopping while black”.

The recent case of a Quebec man named Joël Debellefeuille serves as an alarming example of the first category. Out for a drive with his wife and stepdaughter in his BMW, Debellefeuille—a black man—was pulled over by two Longueuil police officers. They had no reason to run his licence plate, apart from the fact that they believed his last name did not match his skin colour. Such an assumption exposes white Canadians’ persistent ignorance of the history of transatlantic slavery. If, as detailed above, a key strategy of dehumanization was to strip the enslaved of their names and to impose the owners’ names, exactly what types of family names would black people throughout the Black Diaspora then have? Well, French ones if your ancestors were enslaved in the French Empire, Spanish ones in the Spanish Empire, Portuguese in Brazil, and British in the British Empire—like my own name, Nelson. And yet, our unfamiliarity with these histories has allowed white police officers to criminalize Debellefeuille for having a name that, according to them, did not match his race.

Racism manifests in different ways, depending on the individual target. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to attain a significant level of education, income, and status, we often become the victim of a more subtle type of racism. We are told not to achieve so much, aspire to such great things, or desire a “good life.” What this has looked like in my life is several drawn-out battles with colleagues who have attempted to derail my academic career, or obstruct my tenure and promotion (and so my pay increases) by insisting that my experiences and accomplishments are unworthy of those milestones.

In big and small ways, black people in Canada are sent the message that our bodies do not belong in certain hallowed spaces, like university. What this “looks like” is a white, female colleague blocking my entry to a key-access staff washroom until I show her my own key. I learned in that moment that the misperception of my identity had the ability to render me foreign in a place where I had worked for over a decade.

But the most glaring example of racism I have witnessed up close is that which my father, Maxwell Nelson, was subjected to. He moved to Canada from Jamaica in 1969 with my mother, Barbara, and two degrees under his belt—one in economics and one in teaching. Through hard work and with the support of his spouse, he completed several other courses in Canada, including a graduate degree in education and a chartered certificate in accounting. Employed by the Durham Board of Education as a teacher, it took him five years to become a vice-principal. He was over-qualified for the position of principal, having successfully completed his principals courses by the late 1970s, and yet he was forced to train several less qualified, less experienced, and less educated white colleagues—some of whom had only undergraduate degrees—to become his boss.

Although the average vice-principal was promoted after only three years, my dad remained a vice-principal for eleven. In one interview for a principal position, a white superintendent asked my father why he should be made principal of a white school. During another interview, the person in charge of human resources chastised my father, stating, “If you had read the job posting, you would have seen that a masters degree was required.” My father, with three masters degrees, was the most qualified vice-principal of the entire school board. He left that meeting disheartened, and he embarked on a gruelling, ten-year legal battle against the school board, which eventually resulted in their forced diversification (Nelson v. Durham Board of Education).

The specific cases of racism I have related here are only the tip of the iceberg. We know of them because they have gained media coverage, or because these brave black Canadians—like Christie, Desmond, Debellefeuille, and my father—decided to stand up and fight, navigating racially biased legal and judicial structures over the course of several years. Teaching students that slavery transpired in Canada would be a start to changing that narrative. The knowledge of stories like Joe’s would radically overhaul their romantic ideas of racial and ethnic inclusivity, and challenge them to consider how people’s lives and accomplishments are not merely about talent and hard work. It would allow them to see that the criminalization of black populations is an ongoing legacy in our country—and that if we want significant change to occur, we will need to have honest, open-minded conversations.

Charmaine A. Nelson
Charmaine A. Nelson is the Tier I Canada Research Chair in Transatlantic Black Diasporic Art and Community Engagement at NSCAD University (Halifax, Nova Scotia), where she will direct the first-ever institute for the study of Canadian Slavery. Her eighth book, Creolization and Transatlantic Blackness: The Visual and Material Cultures of Slavery, will be published by Routledge/Taylor and Francis in 2021.