Canada, Blacks in
Canada, Blacks in
People of African descent first came to what is currently called Canada in the seventeenth century, serving as explorers, translators, trappers, servants, and farmers. Though still a young man when he made his passage across the Atlantic, Mathieu Da Costa became the first recorded African to reach the burgeoning French colony of New France when he arrived around 1603. According to early reports, Da Costa's linguistic and commercial skills proved most valuable to Portuguese and French merchants, for whom he interpreted. In 1608, Da Costa also bore witness to the founding of Québec City, a monumental event signaling France's determination to remain in North America. Da Costa's ultimate fate is not known, though for a time he is said to have worked as servant in Acadia, a settlement in what is now Nova Scotia.
Within two decades of Da Costa's arrival in New France, conditions had dramatically changed for Africans. The institution of slavery, already well entrenched in the American colonies to the south, had been haphazardly established by missionaries and a handful of the wealthiest colonists. Though only six years old at the time of his enslavement in Madagascar, Olivier Le Jeune earned the dubious distinction of being the first enslaved African brought to New France (he arrived between 1629 and 1632). Le Jeune eventually became the property of Jesuit priests in Québec City, where he worked as a domestic until he died in 1654.
Slavery received full royal sanction in 1689, when Louis XIV endorsed the sale of slaves in New France. Even if slavery never thrived in New France, for those Africans and Panis (Native Canadians) robbed of their freedom, that distinction rarely mattered. Panis slaves were typically used for fur trading and exploration, while enslaved Africans worked as domestics and artisans. They were even paraded as curios among the rich. Throughout the eighteenth century, the number of slaves grew steadily, namely in Québec, Trois-Rivières, Montréal, and Detroit, thanks to colonists and slave traders who ferried slaves up from the American South and the Caribbean. It is estimated that more than 4,000 Panis and Africans were enslaved in presentday Canada between 1632 and 1820.
Even if the daily rigors of enslavement in Canada paled in comparison to those in the colonies to the south, slaves employed a host of strategies when challenging their bondage. For example, in 1734, Marie-Joseph Angélique, a Portuguese-born slave woman of a prominent Montréal family, plotted her escape with her white lover, Claude Thibault. Fearing that their plot would be foiled, Angélique set fire to her mistress's house as a diversion, inadvertently burning down half of Montréal in the process. Her trial, subsequent torture, and death by hanging called attention to the desperation experienced by slaves. In fact, by 1784, a southbound Underground Railroad had developed. This network of early abolitionists facilitated the escape of enslaved Africans from New France into New England and the Northwest Territories, where slavery had by then been outlawed.
If most blacks in Canada lived in New France before 1750, by the end of the century, the Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) became home to the largest number of black migrants. The outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776 forced the immigration of United Empire Loyalists into presentday Ontario, Québec, and the Maritimes. From the outset of the conflict, Britain encouraged rebellion among African Americans, promising freedom, goods, and land to those who fought on their side. As many as 5,000 Black Loyalists—both freedmen and rebels—came to Canada between 1781 and 1784, with more than fifty percent of them settling in Nova Scotia alone. For the most part, these black migrants eked out a difficult existence in the Maritimes because, more often than not, British officials failed to deliver on their promises of land and supplies. Moreover, white Loyalists who headed to the Maritimes, often with chattel in tow, had not made the decision to relocate north because of a distaste for slavery. In fact, they most often resented efforts to give blacks land and waged work, and black émigrés found themselves increasingly forced onto the poorest and most remote lots of land.
Even so, Black Loyalists and other black migrants who poured into the Maritimes at the end of the eighteenth century created communities that in many cases still exist today. Historian Bridglal Pachai posits that Birchtown, one such township populated by 2,700 blacks in 1784, may well have been one of the largest free black urban centers outside of Africa at the time. The port city of Halifax, certainly the largest urban center in the Maritimes, also became home to many people of African descent during this period, with most finding work in the seafaring industry.
After trying their hand at British "freedom" for more than a decade, some Black Loyalists had reached a point of saturation with British land mismanagement and the failed promise of citizenship. By the end of the eighteenth century, a utopian back-to-Africa movement developed among blacks in Canada, supported in no small measure by British officials happy to see disgruntled migrants relocated off shore. In 1792 approximately 1,200 Black Loyalists elected to abandon North America for resettlement to Africa, driven by both missionary zeal and the prospect of greater independence once away from white bureaucrats.
However much whites in the Maritimes might have begrudged their black neighbors, the Africa-bound exodus aggravated the need for labor in the region, which likely explains, at least in part, the British decision to import some 600 Jamaican Maroons in 1796. Their arrival, originally welcomed by local whites, quickly turned to frustration as these new migrants fought off attempts at subjugating them as either indentured workers or slaves. To complicate matters, Maroons had already earned a reputation back in Jamaica for their resistance to British rule, making it far less likely that they could be easy quelled once in Canada. Though they joined forces with other blacks in the Maritimes, most of the Maroon migrants never established permanent lives in Canada, choosing instead to follow those who had set off for Sierra Leone just a few years earlier. By 1800, only ten percent of Maroons still remained in Canada.
A third wave of Southern black migrants arrived in Canada during the War of 1812. Once again, British forces lured African-American soldiers and their families to their cause by promising safe passage to Canada and freedom to any who joined their army. Just as they had in 1776, countless African Americans risked imprisonment or death by helping the British battle the Americans. If many died earning their freedom, some 2,000 refugees eventually traveled to Canada, becoming much needed workers and small-scale farmers once there.
Events at the turn of the eighteenth century combined to bring an end to slavery in Canada. As early as the 1790s, judges and governors in Upper Canada (presentday Ontario) and Lower Canada (Québec) increasingly sided with slaves petitioning for their manumission. The Emancipation
Act of 1833 abolished slavery in the British Empire, but for the majority of blacks in Canada, the de facto end of slavery had come nearly a generation before. By 1833 the number of enslaved Africans was at best negligible. It is interesting to note that the tradition of hosting family reunions and carnival in Canada in early August actually dates back to the celebration of emancipation, officially declared on August 1, 1834.
If blacks in Canada breathed a sigh of relief once slavery ended, they remained keenly aware that in the United States most African Americans still lived in bondage. As of the 1830s, an increasing number of African Americans sought sanctuary in Canada, especially those from Southern border states. They braved harsh weather and slave catchers in the hope of a free life on British soil. Frustrated by runaway slaves and stories of Canada as Canaan, slave owners intensified their hunt for both escaped bondsmen and those helping them northward along what came to be known as the Underground Railroad. It was hoped that passage of Fugitive Slave Laws in the 1850s would deter fugitives and abolitionists, but in the end the laws aggravated tensions between those Americans intent on protecting their right to slaves and Canadian abolitionists determined to end what they saw as an inhumane practice.
The arrival of Freedom Seekers, as these runaway slaves are often called in Canadian historiography, represented the largest single influx of blacks in Canada until the late twentieth century, when West Indians and Africans arrived in record numbers. Not all African Americans coming to Canada between 1830 and 1865 were enslaved; a growing number of African Americans chose to relocate to Canada during that same era due to concerns that slavery could engulf even those states that had abandoned it. In addition, many feared being apprehended by slave catchers poaching in Ohio and Michigan, who were out to claim the often large rewards offered by disgruntled Southern slavers.
Estimates vary widely on the actual number of African Americans who settled in presentday Ontario and Québec, but perhaps as many as 40,000 successfully reached Canadian shores before the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. These political asylum seekers established allblack townships along Lake Ontario, crafting the types of utopian models of freedom and agency that would also arise in the American South during Reconstruction. For example, in Chatham, blacks ran their own local government, produced a well-circulated black newspaper, set up Freemasonry temples, and operated their own schools. Even if such settlements were short lived due to limited resources and internal tensions, their mere existence proved inspiring for African Americans trapped south of the Mason-Dixon line. In fact, during Reconstruction, it is reported that a large number of black migrants in Canada returned to the United States to help with rebuilding efforts and to reunite with their families. For some, like Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823–1893), chief editor of the Provincial Freeman, the rest of their lives would be spent shuttling between Canada and the United States, demonstrating the extent to which many blacks led a life that defied national borders.
Black immigration to Canada was not limited to the East. A steady stream of African Americans living in the West and in California also moved into Canada, hoping to secure homesteads and set up early businesses in Western cities like Calgary, Vancouver, and Victoria. By the 1860s, black Californians represented the largest single migrant group on Vancouver Island. They were the advance vanguard of black entrepreneurs and merchants who, fearing that white supremacists would take over the California government, sold their land and businesses and headed north. Their arrival in western Canada was auspiciously timed, as these early migrants were perfectly poised once the gold rush started in the region.
By the 1880s, black migrants who came to Canada did so to set up farms. Their arrival coincided with the closing of the American frontier and worsening conditions in the Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arkansas basin. Already well acquainted with prairie farming, these black migrants saw Canada's offer of free land to would-be farmers as a godsend. For example, whole black counties in Oklahoma were evacuated, sometimes seemingly overnight, by immigrants determined to live outside of Jim Crow's reach. They came to Canada citing its abolitionist tradition and its generous land policies as their chief reasons for migrating. At this time, black Oklahomans were often quite prosperous, as evidenced by Tulsa's vibrant black business district. Canadian Immigration Department records indicate that Southern African Americans who emigrated to Canada between 1870 and 1911 frequently arrived with enough cash and supplies to succeed at farming.
African-American and West Indian immigrants were also headed to Canadian cities by the 1890s, where they often found work in the transportation industry, either as mariners or sleeping car porters. By World War I, the Canadian Pacific Railway had become the largest employer of black men in Canada. In fact, the Canadian Pacific Railway seemingly could not meet its insatiable demand for black railroaders, opting instead to import Southern African Americans and West Indians for their service. As a result of this employment, African Canadians were a highly urbanized population at the dawn of the twentieth century. By 1921, over sixty percent of blacks in Canada lived in urban centers, with Québec (80%) and Manitoba (88%) home to the most cosmopolitan black populations. What Canada then experienced was a dramatic increase in its urban black population: Montréal, Toronto, and Winnipeg, respectively, experienced a 49 percent, 21 percent, and 96 percent growth in their black citizenry in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Not all Canadians welcomed this rapid change in the make-up of their cities. Many white Canadians, especially those living in the West, pointed to the arrival of blacks from the United States and the Caribbean as endangering the fabric of Canadian society. They reasoned, in the press and to their elected officials, that Canada should be kept "for the white race only" and petitioned for a more exacting defense of its borders from "undesirables." They also insisted that black migrants could not withstand Canada's harsh winters, making them "climactically unsuitable" for citizenship. Some even clamored for the Canadian government to adopt race-based exclusion laws and barring that, they at least expected that their government would levy head taxes on black immigrants. In the end, the Canadian government opted for a complete ban on black immigration in 1911. While the official law was short-lived, its exercise by border guards remained well into the 1950s, making it virtually impossible for all but the most determined black migrants to lawfully enter the country.
Many white Canadians insisted that their distaste for black migrants was born out of a desire "not to inherit Uncle Sam's problem." They pointed to alcohol, crime, changing sexual mores, and—worse still—jazz as problems produced by the mere presence of black migrants, ignoring the fact that the majority of blacks living in Canadian urban centers were industrial workers, small-scale business owners, university students, or children. In fact, in the first half of the twentieth century, Canada's black population was overwhelmingly young. In 1931, for example, more than half of blacks in Canada were under the age of twenty-five, with black children under the age of five accounting for the bulk of blacks living in urban centers. With so young a population, any rise in criminality and lasciviousness in Canada's urban centers could hardly be the singular work of blacks.
Even so, as of World War I, white Canadians called for a greater division of the races. Whereas segregation had been rare and haphazardly applied before, white Canadians adopted Jim Crow in just about every aspect of public life in Canada by the 1920s. To be sure, Canada did not enact Jim Crow laws, as was done in the Southern United States. Instead, just as in the American North, Canadians practiced de facto segregation, barring blacks from schools, pools, hotels, theatres, orphanages, restaurants, and even cemeteries used by whites. For instance, blacks who wanted to see an opera in Montréal in the 1920s were marooned in the "monkey cages," the upper balcony sectioned off for black patrons.
Black Canadians, especially Great War veterans and their families, did not sit idly by as "white only" signs spread across the country. For African-American émigrés from the American South, these new practices were far too reminiscent of the lives they had left behind in the United States. Blacks in Canada galvanized in defense of their civil rights, their families, and their communities. With the assistance of various self-help and racial uplift organizations, such as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), black Canadians challenged segregation using a host of protest methods.
African Canadian women played a critical role as defenders of their communities. Ignoring social conventions requiring that women confine their work to the home, black Canadian women organized consumer boycotts of stores that would not employ people of African descent. When a theatre in Winnipeg aired around-the-clock showings of The Klansman, black women picketed the theater, calling attention to the film's racist and pernicious content and eventually causing the theater to shut down the movie before the end of its scheduled two-week run. Black club and church women also pressured local hospitals to admit young women to their nursing programs, increasing the earning potential of black women who could secure professional training. Where schools failed to provide their children with a good education, black women supplemented the curriculum with arts, music, and literature programs.
In effect, blacks in Canada were able to respond to violations of their civil rights because they had already established strong communities of their own. In many cases, the black church provided black communities with both a firm anchor and a site for organizing their legal, social, and political campaigns. When, in 1936, Jamaican-born Fred Christie decided to sue Montréal's York Tavern for refusing him service, citing their white-only policy, black Montréalers mapped out their legal plan at the Union United Church, the largest and most influential black church in Canada. Although the court ultimately rejected his petition, Christie v. York became the first civil rights case brought before Canada's Supreme Court.
Life for blacks in Canada during the interwar period mirrored that of other Canadians: they focused on navigating the Great Depression's troubled waters and protecting their loved ones when war broke out. Black communities across Canada rallied together and pooled their resources in order to survive an era made all the more taxing given the climate of "negrophobia," as Canadians liked to call it, tainting relations between whites and people of African descent. And just as they had during the World War I, blacks joined the Canadian military forces, serving in Europe alongside other British forces. Back in Canada, many others gained a foothold in war industries, bringing the destitution they had experienced during the 1930s to an end. The interwar period also witnessed the creation of a broad range of black organizations dedicated to civil rights work, most importantly the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Colored People, loosely modeled after its American counterpart.
With the return to peace, it seemed that Canadians now envisaged a very different society for themselves, incrementally abandoning longstanding attachments to discriminatory practices. The historian James Walker contends that after World War II, Canadians became increasingly invested in humanitarian efforts, especially within the context of United Nations programs. Accordingly, under the banner of various interracial human rights organizations, legal challenges to restrictive housing covenants, school segregation, unfair labor laws, and exclusionary immigration statutes slowly dismantled century-old practices. In their stead, Canadian legislators enacted the Bill of Rights of 1960, and by 1967 new immigration law opened the country's borders to people from Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa, finally admitting them on the basis of merit rather than excluding them on the basis of race. To be sure, the success of these laws was made possible by white and black Canadians committed to casting off the yoke of Jim Crow.
The result of Canada's new stand on immigration and civil rights could be felt immediately. For example, in 1931, 85 percent of blacks in Canada were born there, but by 1981, Canadian-born blacks accounted for only 15 percent of the black population. West Indians, especially Jamaicans, quickly became the largest black ethnic group in Canada, as evidenced by their dramatic increase within a twenty-year period: in 1961 the census reported that approximately 12,000 West Indians permanently resided in Canada, while two decades later their numbers swelled to over 200,000. An estimated 50,000 African migrants added to the diversity among black people in Canada. Whereas many of these migrants arrived in Canada with professional degrees from their countries of origin, many more emigrated to attend Canadian universities under programs designed to assist newly decolonized nations. The influx of this ostensibly highly educated and professional black migration created a Canadian black middle class that, more often then not, prospered and remained deeply committed to protecting their rights and privileges.
Regardless of ethnic background or nationality, blacks in Canada banded together, exposing discriminatory practices and breaking down barriers to their advancement. If that first generation of West Indian and African migrants thrived, their children did not, and by the end of the twentieth century there was a disparity in education that endangered black Canadians' middle-class foothold. By the close of the twentieth century, younger black Canadians pointed to discrimination in employment and housing as their greatest impediment, though dissatisfaction with educational options and racial skirmishes were also listed among their grievances. Particularly troubling was the rising rate of high school attrition among Canadian-born blacks, certainly singling them out for an even more insecure economic future in the twenty-first century.
The black experience in Canada has always been defined by a quest for full citizenship set against a background of laws and practices overwhelmingly designed to keep people of African descent confined to marginalized spaces, first as slaves, then as political asylum seekers, and finally as undesirable immigrants. Black migrants to Canada envisioned a very different plan for themselves and fought off attempts to keep them out of the country all together or to deny them meaningful citizenship. In the end, they successfully forged lives for themselves in every part of Canada, making clear that no barrier to their success proved too great.
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sarah-jane (saje) mathieu (2005)