Blacks in Canada

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Blacks in Canada

ETHNONYMS: African-Canadians, Blacks, People of Color


Identification. The Black population in Canada today is derived from several migratory streams. The largest group, numbering approximately 195,000, are relatively recent Migrants from the Caribbean. Blacks have, however, been in Canada since the early eighteenth century. The major division in the population is that between the descendants of Earlier Black settlers and those of more recent Caribbean origin. The major home countries have been Jamaica, Guyana, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago. Divisions based on country of origin affect the first-generation migrant community, but these become increasingly less important to the new generation of Canadian-born.

Location. Black migrants from the Caribbean live primarily in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Smaller numbers now live in other urban centers. Descendants of the earlier settlers live mostly in the province of Nova Scotia in its Capital city of Halifax (and Bedford) and in smaller rural communities spread throughout the province. In the mid-eighteenth century, a small group of Blacks from the United States settled in Amber Valley, Alberta, where a few of their descendants still live, and a similar group found its way to Vancouver Island.

Demography. The Black population of Canada is, according to the 1986 census, 239,000, of whom 193,440 are of Caribbean origin. These census figures, however, are not regarded as accurate because they do not differentiate between racial status and place of origin. In addition, persons of mixed race status may be counted in several categories and Black persons migrating from Great Britain (or other countries) are designated as British. The best estimates suggest that approximately 300,000 Blacks live in Canada today, and the vast majority are of recent Caribbean origin. There are approximately 123,000 Black (and Caribbean) people in Toronto, nearly 50,000 in Montreal, and about 15,000 in Halifax.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Black population in Canada is English-speaking, with the exception of migrants from Haiti who have settled in Quebec, primarily in the city of Montreal. They speak French and Creole as spoken in Haiti.

History and Cultural Relations

Slavery was legal in New France between 1689 and 1709, and it was also permitted in Upper Canada. In 1793, an attempt was made in Upper Canada to abolish slavery; though this failed, Blacks were nevertheless protected by the same laws as Whites. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. It did not become an important institution in early Canadian history because conditions of climate and geography prevented the development of a plantation system of agriculture. Although small numbers of Blacks have lived in Canada since 1628, the first major group was composed of slaves brought to Nova Scotia by residents of New England after the expulsion of the Acadians. Moreover, as a result of the American Revolution in 1776, White loyalists escaping from the colonies also brought their slaves with them to Nova Scotia. The next group of migrants was that of refugee Blacks fleeing from the War of 1812, who settled in Nova Scotia and Ontario. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in the United States in 1850 brought another group of refugee slaves, who used the Underground Railroad to reach southern Ontario. By 1860, there were approximately seventy-five thousand Blacks in the province of Ontario, but most of them returned to the United States after the Civil War.

The last and most substantial group of Blacks to come to Canada were from the Caribbean. This migration began in the early 1960s and reached its peak during the 1970s. At this time, approximately ten thousand migrants from the Caribbean come to Canada each year. The largest numbers come from the Commonwealth Caribbean and are English-speaking, but smaller numbers have migrated from French-speaking Haiti.


Blacks are essentially integrated into the larger economy. In earlier periods of history, employment ghettoization marginalized the majority of Blacks into the service sector and on the railways. In more recent times, middle-class Blacks occupy professional and managerial positions in medicine, nursing, accountancy, and the like. Those with less education, and more recently arrived Caribbean migrants, are still clustered into the service and unskilled-labor sectors.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Traditional patterns of family organization have, to a certain extent, been retained by the first generation of Caribbean Migrants. Single-mother-headed households are still fairly Common, especially among the working class. In the middle-class migrant population, legal marriage and nuclear families predominate. In all Caribbean migrant groups, regardless of class status, a significant incidence of marriage or relationship failure is apparent; this is probably related to the stress of migrating to a predominantly White host society. The marriage and family organization of descendants of the earlier Black settlers is, in most respects, similar to that of the mainstream society.

Sociopolitical Organization

Although racial discrimination in Canada was not as institutionalized as in the United States, racism has played a major role in constraining the lives and experiences of Black Canadians. Even in earlier times, Blacks were victims of racial discrimination. Free Black settlers in Nova Scotia were given the most rocky and infertile land and, as a result, were barely able to maintain themselves. Blacks in Nova Scotia soon became wards of the government and have lived in a condition of dependency through most of their history. Today, the result of generations of neglect and poverty can be seen in the lack of development in the Black communities of that province. In Nova Scotia and Ontario, school segregation was practiced and Black children were denied equal access to educational facilities. The last segregated, all-Black school in Ontario Finally closed its doors in 1965. Although most provinces have enacted human rights and antidiscrimination legislation, and the federal government of Canada has legislated a Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as Multicultural and Employment Equity legislation, patterns of racism can still be detected in Canadian society. Overt racism in the form of Incidents such as personal assaults, police harassment, name-calling, and racial slurs are evident in the large cities of the country where Blacks have tended to settle. There is also considerable evidence for systemic employment and housing discrimination. The Black population is part of the larger sociopolitical structure of Canadian society. In former times, the small Black communities were not particularly active in Political arenas. More recently, however, a greater sense of Political awareness is developing, as Blacks form substantial residential communities in the larger cities. More Black candidates are standing for political office, although with relatively little success so far. At the moment, the province of Ontario has a Black lieutenant governor who acts as the representative of the queen.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The descendants of earlier Black settlers for the most part belong to Protestant denominational churches as well as fundamentalist, independent churches derived from Protestantism. Many of the more recently arrived migrants from the Caribbean practice Roman Catholicism. Membership in fundamentalist Protestant churches is, however, on the increase among this group. In addition, some Haitian migrants in Montreal have retained aspects of the traditional Haitian vodun religion. Jamaican-derived Rastafarianism is practiced, especially in the larger cities such as Toronto and Montreal. The majority of Rastafarians are relatively young. Because Rastafarianism is associated with reggae music, it is especially appealing to the youth. Symbols associated with Rastafarianism, such as traditional colors, dreadlocks hairstyles, and other emblems, are particularly attractive to Black youth searching for the African roots of their ethnic identities.


Christiansen, J. M., et al. (1980). West Indians in Toronto. Toronto: Family Service Association of Metropolitan Toronto.

Clairmont, D. H., and D. W. Magill (1974). Africville: Ufe and Death of a Canadian Black Community. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Henry, Frances (1973). The Forgotten Canadians: The Blacks of Nova Scotia. Don Mills, Ontario: Longman Canada.

Walker, James W. St. G. (1976). The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. New York: Africana.

Winks, Robin W. (1971). The Blacks in Canada: A History. New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press; McGill-Queen's University Press.