Beyond the Underground Railroad: Reckoning with Canada’s slavery history

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/AP
People raise their fists in the air as they attend a rally before an Emancipation Day march, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Aug. 1, 2020. Emancipation Day marks the abolition of slavery in parts of the British Empire.

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Most of what Canadians know of slavery is about tropical plantations, through movies like “Django Unchained,” “12 Years a Slave,” or “Lincoln,” says Charmaine Nelson, Canada Research Chair in transatlantic Black diasporic art and community engagement at NSCAD University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There is no film on Canadian slavery.

She says Canada has essentially erased the 200 years of slavery that came before 1833, when the British Empire abolished slavery across its territories. That’s the driving force behind the university’s new Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery, where she is founding director.

Why We Wrote This

If you ask most Canadians about their history with slavery, they cite the Underground Railroad. A new institute hopes to bring to light Canadian slavery that existed before the British Empire abolished it.

Dr. Nelson hopes that through the new institute's work, the world will begin to understand slavery of temperate climates – how enslaved people adorned themselves or how they lived, for example. That's why the institute is working out of an arts university, she says: so that the work they produce – both academic and artistic – might reach a bigger audience.

“We dichotomize ourselves with the U.S.,” she says. “We blame all colonial baggage of North America on Americans, or say, ‘Don’t import the racism of America.’ No, no, no, this is homegrown racism.”

With charges of racism raining down on the British monarchy after Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, Canada’s relationship to the crown – and its own legacy of racism – swiftly came under the microscope, too.

In one Canadian television news segment wrestling with the implications for a Commonwealth country, a panelist fell back on one of the more common refrains when it comes to Canada’s history with slavery: its role as the destination of the Underground Railroad for enslaved people in the United States.

But that only tells the nice part of the story, says Charmaine Nelson, Canada Research Chair in transatlantic Black diasporic art and community engagement at NSCAD University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Why We Wrote This

If you ask most Canadians about their history with slavery, they cite the Underground Railroad. A new institute hopes to bring to light Canadian slavery that existed before the British Empire abolished it.

She says Canada has essentially erased the 200 years of slavery that came before 1834, when the British Empire abolished slavery across its territories. That’s the driving force behind the university’s new Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery, where she is founding director.

“We constantly teach the part of slavery that makes us look and feel good, that positions us as benevolent abolitionists,” says Dr. Nelson. But that deficit of knowledge has implications for the way race relations are understood, policy is penned, and justice protests are perceived. “It fits with this false narrative that we’re multicultural, we’re race-blind, we’re colorblind, we have no racism.”

It’s not that the history of slavery here is hidden; it just hasn’t been robustly told. Protests against streets or institutions bearing slave owners’ names have grown over the years, and after a long push by advocates, the House of Commons voted unanimously Wednesday to recognize Emancipation Day on Aug. 1.

“Canadian folklore”

But Erica Ifill, a columnist for Ottawa newspaper The Hill Times and podcaster in Canada, says mainstream society has preferred to reduce the topic to the 30-some years that Canada was a safe haven from the southern U.S. The inequities the pandemic has exposed between races, however, and the Black Lives Matter protests that a locked-down world watched last summer, have placed a limit on the tolerance for this kind of “Canadian folklore,” as she calls it.

Ms. Ifill was one of the guests on the CTV “Power Play” show addressing the revelations shared by Harry and Meghan that someone within the monarchy questioned how dark their yet-to-be-born son’s skin tone would be.

She was joined by David Onley, the former lieutenant governor of Ontario, who turned the discussion toward the “rich history” of Ontario, formerly Upper Canada, when it came to taking the first legislative steps to free enslaved individuals. “That’s why the people from the southern United States with the Underground Railroad, that’s why they moved to the north.”

Ms. Ifill called him out for “cherry picking” history, at a time when colonial powers were stealing land from Indigenous people and life was hardly easy for those of African descent here.

“You can’t pick and choose which parts you like,” she says.

Most of what Canadians – and the world – know of transatlantic slavery is about tropical plantations, through movies like “Django Unchained,” “12 Years a Slave,” or “Lincoln,” says Dr. Nelson. There is no film on Canadian slavery. Academics don’t even have an estimate of the size of the enslaved population brought to the French and English colonies that spanned from what is now Ontario to the eastern coast.

Dr. Nelson hopes that through the new institute’s work, the world will begin to understand slavery of temperate climates – how enslaved people adorned themselves or how they lived, for example. That’s why the institute is working out of NSCAD University (formerly Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), she says: so that the work they produce – academic research, and arts and popular visual culture – might reach a bigger audience.

The institute, whose construction has been delayed because of the pandemic, will include space for visiting scholars, a screening room where films will be discussed and conferences held, and a reference library. They hope to invite their first visiting fellows for the upcoming academic year, including two graduate students and two artists-in-residence. It’s touted as the first of its kind.

A more urban slavery

The site of Nova Scotia is key to understanding northern slavery, says Yvonne Brown, who works at Saint Mary’s University in the department of social justice and community studies. Maritime Canada was central to trading slave-produced commodities such as sugar, molasses, and rum in exchange for salted and canned fish, and lumber from the area enabled the shipbuilding and lumbering industry that facilitated enormous imperial international trade, she says.

In Canada, the number of enslaved people would have been much smaller because agriculture is not year-round. But that means they would have lived inside slave-owner homes, instead of distinct slave quarters, leading to less autonomy and more surveillance. Slavery here was more urban, and enslaved people stood out more. That slave numbers were smaller has fed into notions that slavery was gentler than in the U.S., Dr. Nelson says, a current that runs through U.S.-Canadian comparative history.

She says in nearly two decades teaching the visual culture of slavery, only one student of hers raised a hand when asked whether they knew that there was slavery in Canada. Plenty of them, however, are aware of America’s history of slavery and how that affects race relations in the U.S. through the present.

“We dichotomize ourselves with the U.S.; we blame all colonial baggage of North America on Americans, or say, ‘Don’t import the racism of America.’ No, no, no, this is homegrown racism,” she says. “For me, the reason this institute is so important is there’s almost no racial injustice that happens today that you can’t draw a line straight back to slavery.”

She connects the hyper-surveillance of enslaved people in Canadian households more than 200 years ago to the hyper-surveillance of Black Canadians by the police, to name one example.

And she says it’s time that more Canadians start making those same connections.

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