Afua Cooper is one of the few Black Canadian scholars to have documented the enslavement of African descendants in Canada. Cooper attests that slavery not only occurred in Canada but is a relatively unknown topic. During the bondage of African people in Canada, dating back to the mid-1700s, many of them died due to the harsh social climate of colonization in Canada (Cooper, 2007).
The notion that slavery did not exist in Canada speaks to an erasure of the horrific and brutal historical realities that many Black Canadians faced. In The African Canadian Legal Odyssey, “black” Canadian scholar Barrington Walker (2012) mentions, like Cooper, that slavery among African descent people in Canada are actual events that were motivated based on the political nature that shaped Canada in the image of the white European settler. Considering that slavery did occur in Canada, many are unaware of how this process took place, and the social impact African descent people faced. For instance, according to Matthew McRae (2020), African descent slaves arrived in the Canadian nation-state to replace the Indigenous people, who were the first to be enslaved under the white European colonist. Although the harsh conditions of slavery bestowed among Black people in the United States were different, such as forcing slaves to reproduce to enslave young Black children, Canada still invoked its own sets of rules to mistreat African descent slaves. They were stripped of their human rights and were sought after as the property of slave masters (McRae, 2020).
Enslaving African descent people in Canada was driven by politics and the expansion of the European markets. Walker contends that “Black Canadian social history is a consequence of the era of European empire and slavery where questions of Blacks’ legal and citizenship status, the nature and quality of their freedom, and even their very humanity often hinged upon questions of law” (Barrington Walker 2012, pg. 3). Like the United States, African descent people in Canada belonged to the state during the slave era. Their Canadian identity was defined by colonial political powers, which were colonization’s expression to oppress and Other their existence. Walker argues that “the law had a central role in deﬁning Black Canadian life in the slavery and the post-slavery eras” (Barrington Walker 2012, pg. 3). Walker’s assertion tells the truth that the lives of African descent people not only belonged to the Canadian nation-state, but the African body, through legality, was recognized as having no sense of self-autonomy. The historical reality for the African descent slave in Canada was that “slavery was legally supported in one of two ways: through positive law, and more passively through the recognition of the customary use of slaves” (Barrington Walker 2012, pg. 3). The rationale to enslave African descent people in Canada and worldwide was to expand on the European conquest to broaden its market. According to John Henrik Clarke, “Europeans started to expand beyond their homeland into the broader world. They were searching for new markets, new materials, new manpower, and new land to exploit. The African slave trade was created to accommodate this expansion” (Clarke, 1992, pg. 58). Even in the Canadian nation-state, African descent people were used to create the white European vision for the world. Consequently, indentured servitude was used against African descent slaves for the rise of European expansion, but it was done so under free labour conditions.
Free labour from servants sounded better than free labour from slaves. Although African people were once slaves whom white Canadian colonists enforced to provide free labour, white Canadian Loyalists defined them as servants. In doing so, it was difficult to distinguish the terms of the agreement between slave owners and “servants.” For instance, Canadian slave masters “referred to their slaves as servants, and without another piece of evidence such as a will or runaway advertisement it is nearly impossible to know definitively if they were actually enslaved” (Whitfield, 2007, pg. 1983). The confusion ties to the colonists’ plan to control the colonized, and in doing so, the colonist also controls the enslaved way of living. Contracts were drawn between the slave master and the enslaved for free labour to control and define the African slave. Under indentured servitude, African descent slaves unknowingly signed and agreed to an agreement that exploited them for many years to perform unpaid labour. In exchange, they received transportation, food and lodging (McRae, 2020). Even though there was some trade recognition between slave owners and enslaved Africans, it was far from equal, and there was no monetary compensation for their labour. The reality is that the indentured servitude was harsh and exploitative and defined the African slave as property. Unfortunately, the children of the enslaved also became property, ensuring slavery to be intergenerational” (McRae, 2020).
Clarke, J. H. (1992). Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan holocaust: Slavery and the rise of European capitalism. Brooklyn: A & B Books.
Cooper, A. (2007). The hanging of Angelique: The untold story of Canadian slavery and the burning of Old Montreal. University of Georgia Press.
McRae, M. (n.d.). The story of slavery in Canadian history. Retrieved May 14, 2020, from https://humanrights.ca/story/the-story-of-slavery-in-canadian-history
Walker, B. (2012). Introduction: From a property right to citizenship rights-The African Canadian legal odyssey.Walker, B. (Ed.). The African Canadian Legal Odyssey: Historical Essays. University of Toronto Press.
Whitfield, H. A. (2007). Black Loyalists and Black Slaves in Maritime Canada. History Compass, 5(6), 1980-1997.