Very few recall that African slavery existed in Canada until 1833, and that between 1787 and 1800 fugitive slaves fled south to New England and the Northwest (Michigan) Territory. Throughout the 1800s Canadians segregated schools and communities, as well as military units.
Canadian Slavery Mythology
“Canadian comments about American racial problems are further colored by the fact that few Canadians are well informed on Canada’s own Negro record. Cowper, in celebrating Justice Mansfield’s decision, thought that “Slaves cannot breathe in England: if their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free.” This was adequate poetry but inaccurate current events, for “Mansfield” decision freed no substantial body of slaves, even in England, and in Imperial Britain they remained enslaved until 1834.
Yet today most Canadians assume that slavery in British North America was struck down unilaterally by colonial assemblies which, in fact, lacked power to move against such Imperial laws. A standard account of Ontario’s history, published in 1898, concluded that because of the passage of Simcoe’s Bill (which prohibited the import of slaves) in 1793, “Canadians can therefore claim the proud distinction for their flag….that it has never floated over legalized slavery.”
An extensive guidebook to Canada credits the entire Negro population of Nova Scotia to men “who came north as slaves from the British West Indian colonies . . . ,” ignoring totally the Maroon and Refugee elements. An attempt to plumb the character of Canadians found that the Negroes of the Maritime Provinces – 15,000 in all – were descendants of runaway slaves, when in truth not even half are such.
And one of Canada’s leading students of race relations, in writing specifically of discrimination against the Negro, asserts that slavery did not exist in British North America in the Nineteenth Century, although slavery was in fact legal until 1833. In short, there is no accurate historical memory in Canada of British North America’s own experiences with the Negro, and even a clouded awareness of an earlier Negro presence is slight.
In truth, only Canada West [Ontario] served to any considerable extent as a haven for fugitive slaves, but the whole of the Canadian nation later accepted a mythology arising from but one of its units.”
(The Canadian Negro: A Historical Assessment, Robin Winks, Journal of Negro History, Volume LIII, No. 4., October, 1968, pp. 290-292)