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Fall 2003
A Publication of the St. Louis Public Library

Vol. 3   No. 4


Persons of African Descent in Canada

Canada was, and continues to be, home to numerous persons of color. French settlers brought black slaves into Canada as early as 1608, although the first black slave directly brought from Africa did not arrive until 1629. Canada was never host to a large number of slaves because Canadian climate and terrain did not favor large-scale cultivation of those crops most dependent on slave labor: rice, cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, hemp, and indigo. In 1759, records list 4,000 slaves in all of Upper and Lower Canada. Most slaves in Canada were employed as personal servants or dock workers, and most Canadian slave owners owned fewer than five slaves.

The first large-scale migration of American black persons to Canada came as a result of America's victory in the American Revolution. Several thousand black United Empire Loyalists settled in Nova Scotia in 1783-1784 on land granted from the British crown. By 1800, however, many of these immigrants had left Canada and its harsh winters for sunny Sierra Leone.

Canada became a favored destination for escaped American slaves after the British Empire abolished slavery in 1834, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made it easier for slave owners to secure the return of escaped slaves from northern states. The Underground Railroad assisted escaped slaves in their flight to Canada. Harriet Tubman, a famous Underground Railroad conductor, was based in St. Catherines, Ontario, before the American Civil War. It is estimated that approximately 30,000 American slaves escaped into Canada.

Escaped American slaves, for the most part, went to established communities of ex-slaves in Canada. Such communities were concentrated in the province of Ontario and included the towns of Chatham, Fort Erie, Hamilton, Owen Sound, St. Catherines, Wilberforce, and Windsor. There was also a rural enclave of ex-slaves concentrated in an area located primarily in Peel Township, which was known locally as Queen's Bush. Ex-slaves also lived in Toronto, mostly in the area that now constitutes Toronto's electoral Ward Four.

Ex-slaves in Canada were free and generally beyond the reach of their ex-masters. But conditions in Canada were not idyllic. Some cities protested the establishment of nearby ex-slave communities, and ex-slaves in some areas were cheated out of their land or made to pay exorbitant purchase prices.

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