2017- Canada’s 150th birthday prompted
much looking back at our history. And one of the things Canadians have long
been proud about is our status as the final stop on the Underground Railroad, a
safe refuge for American slaves fleeing bondage.
This is true, and we should be
proud. But let’s not be too proud ― after all, the colonies that became Canada
also had slavery for more than two centuries, ending only 30 years before U.S.
President Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
When Britain took over New France,
about 7 per cent of the colony was enslaved, or around 4,000 out of a population of 60,000.
Two-thirds were indigenous slaves, known as Panis, and the other third African,
who cost twice as much and were a status symbol. The British did not set them
“We don’t know about what happened before
the Underground Railroad, which is that indigenous and black Canadians endured
slavery.” —Afua Cooper, historian
Unlike our American cousins, Canada
did not itself end its slavery ― in fact, in 1777 slaves began fleeing Canada for
Vermont, which had just abolished slavery. It took Britain to
finally outlaw the practice across their entire empire in 1834.
There had been a history of First Nations enslaving prisoners of war
prior to colonialism, however they were often exchanged as part of
alliance-making or to replace their own war dead. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights reports that
“unlike Aboriginal peoples, Europeans saw enslaved people less as human
beings and more as property that could be bought and sold. Just as
importantly, Europeans viewed slavery in racial terms, with Aboriginals
and Africans serving and white people ruling as masters.”
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