When was slavery abolished in Canada When was slavery abolished in Canada

Breaking Chains: The Abolition of Slavery in Canada and Its Historical Significance

Slavery was practised in Canada since the pre-Columbian era and the British enslavement after that. Then the question arises, exactly when was slavery abolished in Canada?

Slavery officially ended in Canada in 1833 by the British empire. However, effectively, it began in the early 19th century when several courts pronounced the abolition of slavery.

In Nova Scotia and Lower Canada, the court especially gave the judgment in favour of slaves for not compelling them to work and leave their masters in their wills.

In upper Canada, Anti Slavery Legislation was enacted in 1793 to abolish it. It was considered the earliest slavery abolition act in the world.

1. History of Slavery in Canada

When was slavery abolished in Canada
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Slavery in Canada has a long history from the pre-Columbian era to when the British arrived in the British Columbia district. It used to have fishing societies that started slavery which became more profound after the British arrival.

1.1. Rule of Indigenous People

The first community that owned slaves in Canada was the fishing community. They were the Yurok tribe that lived along the northwest coast of North America.

The region was present-day Alaska to California. Some people were Haida and Tlingit, warrior class and used to own slaves. Slavery became hereditary in Canada.

The prisoners of war became the first slaves of the winning side, and the next generations became slaves automatically. Some regions in British Columbia had enslaved people till the 1970s.

These enslaved people consisted of almost one-fourth of the Northwestern Pacific Coastal region. An account of John Jewitt, a traveller from Britain, describes the conditions of the slave trade in this region.

1.2. European Settlement and Slavery

According to historian Marcel Trudel, there were around 4000 slaves in Canada who were segregated in the French colonies and other Canada. Among these, two/third were indigenous slaves, and others were of African descent.

When the British were in Canada, the portion of black slaves increased. Today, many black people are descendants of these slaves. The enslaved people were engaged in household chores and farm work.

Upper Canada saw more upsurge in the number of slaves than lower Canada. Some local chiefs of Africa enslaved African-descent people to sell them to American colonies.

From the American colonies, the slave trade began in Canada. Most of the enslaved people of Canada were from America. They enslaved Africans who faced physical and psychological abuse in Canada by slave owners.

1.2.1. French Colonies

In french colonies, enslaved Africans were less than indigenous enslaved people. A historian Afua Cooper narrates the untold story of the miserable situations of the slaves.

There was a high mortality rate where enslaved people of the First Nation and enslaved Africans had an average age of 17 and 25, respectively. Occupations

Many slaves were engaged in forced labour, fur trading, farm work, and household chores. There was a high unavailability of workers in the french colonies. Therefore, King Louis XIV ordered to import of slaves of African descent at a request from New France.

But the shipment never arrived. A maximum of slaves was acquired from indigenous and African peoples living in other Frech and British colonies. As the demand grew, New France bought indigenous slaves from US Midwestern states.

These black and indigenous people were from the Pawnee tribe. Some were captured as prisoners of war by indigenous allies and french troops. Rights of Slaves

Slaves were devoid of any rights in the french colonies. While slavery was banned in France, it was legal to supply labour.

They needed labour for farms of sugar, indigo and tobacco plantations and in the construction sector.

A decree was passed in 1685 by the king, Code Noir, which was imposed on slave labour. They were forced to convert to Catholics. It set conditions of slavery, strictly control on them and policed them.

Enslaved people became domestic servants, and the enslaved woman was considered sex worker. There was a problem with this code.

It did not seem to be applied in Canada, so an ordinance was issued in 1709 to legitimize slavery in Canada officially. An Enslaved Woman Account

A wealthy widow bought Marie Joseph Angelique. When Marie discovered her sale to another slave owner, she burnt her owner’s house.

The fire raged over 46 buildings surrounding the owner’s house. When she was captured, paraded on the streets and tortured publicly until she confessed.

Then she was hanged on the street, facing the buildings ruined by fire.

Historian Marcel Trudel noted that around 4000 slaves were there in New France by 1759. When Britsh arrived, slave ownership remained in French hands. British slave owners were much fewer in numbers.

1.2.2. British North America

There were fewer slaves under British rule when United Empire Loyalists arrived in 1783. According to the census, only 104 were listed slaves in 1767.

Most of the slaves were imported from Ohio and Kentucky. They were sold or gifted to the allies of war.

During American Civil War, many soldiers were gifted African slaves and female slaves for domestic work.

When white settlers of America fled due to war, they took almost 2000 black slaves with them. Most were sent to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

In Ontario, The Imperial Act ensured that the enslaved people would remain their property, and the loyalist slavery was made domestic servants.

After signing the Treaty of Paris of 1963, the Quebec Act of 1774 and the Treaty of Paris of 1783, enslaved people were given some rights.

Their marriages were recognized by law, no gang labour system was there, and permission for study and encouragement to convert to Christianity was encouraged.

2. Resistance, Escape and Slavery Abolition Act

Why Did Britain Abolish Slavery in 1833? (Pt 1)

There was occasional resistance from the Canadian slave communities. Slave owners were beaten and scolded by a group of slaves.

In 1777, when Vermont state abolished slavery, many enslaved people fled from British Columbia to Vermont.

Canadian slavery was abolished in different episodes in different regions.

2.1. Quebec Region (Lower Canada)

In lower Canada, a Chief Justice, Sir James Monk, pronounced several judgements during the 1790s to abolish slavery. After these pronouncements, enslaved people, black slaves and enslaved Africans fled away from the slave society.

The Chief Justice warned the slave owners that the judgments would be implemented in subsequent cases.

After this warning, slave status was changed. Slave societies were given freedom. Correction homes were also established.

Enslaved children and enslaved women with formerly enslaved people were given more rights. The administration of Lower Canada refused to extradite escaped slaves to the USA on the principle of dual criminality.

2.2. Nova Scotia

In this region, black slaves were more in number. Many were brought through the Transatlantic Slave trade. The indigenous and Atlantic slaves were free as many fled during the American war.

But many were under the white American settlers. In 1772, a decision in the case of Knight v. Wedderburn changed the outlook for slaves in England. This case abolished it in Scotland and inspired Nova Scotia.

British Colonies were forced to accept the decision as enslaved people revolutionized the whole region. In 1788, an abolitionist, James Drummond, began purchasing the freedom of slaves.

In 1790, a slave owner freed an enslaved black woman and enslaved person. These free slaves’ movements became a norm. Finally, in 1808, Nova Scotian Legislature refused to give legal status to slavery.

Two Chief Justices were instrumental in making Nova Scotia free of slaves. Justice Thomas Andrew and Justice Sampson Salter became household names. Black slavery was abolished in the Nova Scotia region completely.

By the end 0f the 1812 war, there were very few slaves left in the region. in 1807, British Parliament abolished slavery through Slavery Trade Act and  Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.

2.2.1. Knight v. Wedderburn

Knight was a slave of Wedderburn. He brought him along to Scotland. Knight was probably turned into a slave by the captain of the ship.

The captain sold him to Wedderburn where he was brought back to Scotland. When Knight wanted to leave the service, he was arrested by police authorities at the request of Wedderburn.

Knight fought by citing Sommersett’s judgement in which the court pronounced the illegality of slavery in Britain. He convinced the judges that slavery was no longer a rule after two unsuccessful appeals.

2.2.2. R v. Jones

Jones was a slave owner. One of his slaves was Nancy. New Brunswickers challenged Jone’s ownership in 1799.

The case was before a four-judge bench of the Supreme Court. Nancy argued that slavery could not be continued because of human rights violations. Colonists have already abolished it in their home country.

The verdict was against Nancy as it was two by two split. Therefore she had to return to her enslavement.

Mary Morton filed another case under the name R. v. Agnew. But it was also not successful.

Although these cases were against slaves, they ignited a revolution in the minds of enslaved people. One of the judges on the bench manumitted his slaves after it got tense.

2.3. Ontario (Upper Canada)

In 1790, a slave woman faced violence from her owner. This was so grave that the news made headlines. The Lieutenant Governor of the area took cognizance of the case and passed the Act Against Slavery of 1793. There were four main points mentioned in this legislation

  • No new slave could be bought in the region.
  • Those who were already slaves would remain till their last breath.
  • The import of slaves was banned.
  • Children born of slave women would remain slaves until 25 years of age only.

When this act was enacted, it was regarded as a watershed moment in Ontario. Slavery was significantly reduced in this region.

However, a new problem emerged. Now the people were banned from dealing with slaves in Ontario and were sold in the USA.

By 1800, however, the USA diminished the slave trade notably through court decisions. Stricter rules were imposed to ban forced labour. Owned slaves found it an opportunity to flee to Ohio and Michigan states.

3. The Aftermath of the Slave Trade

When was slavery abolished in Canada
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It was like a renaissance period in Canadian History where slave traders were stopped from this illegal activity. The enslaved people got a new life where they could go and live freely.

They started escaping from the slave owners’ residents, changing the prime destination to North America.

An underground railroad was developed through which they found tactics, tricks and road networks from where they could easily escape.

However, black lives were still facing slavery in Canada. This was true for educational institutions also. The separateness in the classrooms was introduced after the 1850s for black and white people in Upper Canada.

Even till the 1940s, when Word War II was going on, black women were not permitted any work except household service.

Black slaves were not raising concerns before factory owners as no one was listening. However, they organized a union called Sleeping Car Porters for better work conditions for the first time.

3.1. Sleeping Car Porters

Canadian railway corporations hired black slaves for the rail travellers. They were responsible for providing every essential required by passengers.

These were hired across Upper Canada and Lower Canada, West Indies, North and South America etc. Companies did not focus on the work ethic of these workers.

The main works for these slaves were, welcoming the passengers, taking care of the luggage, organizing beds, arranging food, cleaning shoes, coats, and other clothes, taking care of sick children and adults and being available for anything that a traveller wanted.

These were Canada’s forgotten slaves who were a part of Canadian society but with no rights. This led the workers to organize unions like the Order of Sleeping Car Porters (OSCP) and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP).

They demanded their legitimate rights and good working conditions with higher pay. This was a huge change brought up by African Canadians in Canadian society.

3.2. Rights for Black Lives

When slavery was abolished in Canada
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Rights in education, employment and working conditions only began to improve after the 1950s when World War II effects began to recede.

The movement of Black Lives Matter started to gain currency in the world. Due to this, provinces in Canada amended their laws to inculcate African descent in Canadian society.

White people embraced African Descent people. Colonial Canada became a hotspot for the anti-Black slavery movement.

3.3. Manumission

Manumission was the act of freeing slaves from their enslavement. The abolitionists used this in several ways. The underground railroad movement was one of the movements under this practice.

The reason for manumission was gratuitous, but sometimes courts had to interfere. Slave owners were given time to free their slaves. They used to respond in favour as well as against it.

4. Present Conditions in Canada

Canada ratified the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery in 1953 to limit slavery with the help of global institutions.

Regarding slavery, human trafficking became an issue for the Canadian legal system. British Columbia became the first district to take an action against human trafficking.

The first action was taken to de-organize the Domotor Kolompar Criminal Organisation. The Canadian government started a National Action Plan to Combating Human Trafficking to eradicate this menace from society.

A former working group called the Interdepartmental Working Group on Trafficking in Person was replaced by a Human Trafficking Taskforce in 2012 to deal with the policy-making against human trafficking in Canada.

4.1. Modern Anti-Slavery Legislation


Canada’s modern Anti-Slavery Law is focused on eliminating forced labour and child labour in factories and supply chains.

Modern slavery is referred to as forced labour in factories which includes child labour. The proposed law is under consideration of a committee confirmation and the House of Commons seal.

This will enable the government to look for corporations related to Canada, in the country or outside, to report to the government on steps taken against forced labour.

5. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What led to the transatlantic slave trade prospering?

In the 15th century, a ‘triangular’ trade was started in Canada. They brought the raw material to Africa to exchange that with slaves. These slaves were forced to work in British North America.

The production in North and South America was again sent to Europe where it was shipped to Africa for more slaves.

Why did British Empire engage in slavery despite banning it in the home country?

Due to the vast expansion of the empire, it required a lot of production for their home country. When British North America was established, there was an opportunity for Britain to boost production rigorously.

This is because raw materials were readily available and of African descent slaves also.

Why African slaves were the more focused target of white settlers?

African-descent people were not educated enough at that time. Additionally, resources are scarce in Africa. Europeans took advantage of this and offered goods and products in exchange for slaves.

Who were the slave owners?

Whoever paid the required amount for a person became the owner of that person. Most of these owners were white settlers in North and South America that were engaged in the transatlantic slave trade.

What was the underground railroad?

It was an anti-slavery movement in America. It was started by people who were against slavery and wanted to free the slaves.

Slave labour used to flee the slave areas of South America to British North America where laws were enacted in favour of the slaves.

What is chattel slavery?

Chattel slavery is a type of slavery in which people are considered property. They can be bought, sold or given a lease.

Americans introduced this slavery to the world. It got spread to other areas as well.

Who is representing James Robinson Johnston as Chair?

James Robinson Johnston is regarded as the first lawyer of African descent in Nova Scotia who provided legal representation to many black slaves in Nova Scotia.

He graduated in 1896 from Dalhousie University. As an honour, a chair was created in his name to promote Black Canadian studies in Canada.

What is the significance of Saint John’s Island in Canadian history?

Saint John’s Island or Prince Edward Island was the first island in 1781 which passed legislation defining the legal parameters for slaves. It provided various rights to them, making them ‘human’ instead of mere ‘property’.

Why was West Africa so important for traders?

When there was a shortage of slaves, King Louis permitted traders to import slaves from this region. This region is devoid of natural resources.

Therefore it was easy to lure people for some food and clothes. European traders used to exchange raw materials with the people as slaves.

6. Conclusion

When was the Practice of slavery abolished in Canada?..the date was August 1, 1834, the emancipation day when the Act Against Slavery came into effect. Every Canadian celebrates this day to remember thousands of innocent people who died during troubled days.

It was a long struggle for the enslaved people to fight the mighty french colonists and white settlers of British North America. Black history is so much horrifying for the descendants of black people in Canada and America

It was only due to some enlightened people justices and abolitionists that the abolition of slavery became possible. Movements like the underground railroad gave an impetus to the slaves for a better future.

Present-day slavery is also a reflection of the past where the government is trying to make effective legislation to stop it. From this episode of Canadian history, it is worth mentioning that human rights are the highest rights that give dignity to a person’s life.

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