Yes, slavery occurred in Canada!
Slavery occurred both in the time of the French and British, and the history of this country is intertwined in the practice of African enslavement. From as early as the 1620’s slavery began in New France and it continued after the British took control. Slavery came to an end in British North America, as Canada was then called, on August 1, 1834. August 1 each year is, therefore, a significant date in the history of Canada as it marks an especially important date in the history of civil rights in this country. The commemoration of the anniversary of abolition should, therefore, be important for all who live in Canada irrespective of ethnicity or culture. It is deeply regrettable that August 1 has been largely forgotten in Canada and that the false narrative that slavery did not occur in Canada has taken root in our country.
To be clear, slavery did not occur in Canada on a large scale. Given the climatic realities and the consequent short season for growing and reaping crops, large plantations that were characteristic of other British colonies in the Caribbean and the estates of the American states would have been uneconomical in Canada. Because of this, some have insinuated that the severity of slavery in Canada was not as brutal as that experienced in the Caribbean or in the USA. This is a false narrative as it should be remembered that in slavery in North and South America and in the Caribbean were similar because it sought to dehumanize the enslaved. In slavery a Black person was not considered to be human, they were thought to be less than human and treated as commodity. The enslaved were treated by their owners in brutal, horrendous, and cruel ways with impunity. Slave owners rationalized that these methods were necessary given the aim of the full subjugation of the enslaved.
The enslavement of Africans enabled the promotion of anti-Black racism. This is indeed one of the legacies of slavery. The reality of anti-Black racism has continued throughout the history of this country. Yet another legacy of slavery in Canada was the feeling that Black people were not suited to the climate and this belief continued to influence immigration policy well into the 1960’s. The commemoration of the anniversary of the end of slavery should serve as a clarion call to all of us in civil society to recommit to the ending of racism and discrimination in all its forms. It is also a time to look again at the ways that systemic racism occurs in the society.
It bears remembering that the primary reason for slavery was not because of race; it was because of money and profit. European colonizers needed cheap labour to make profitable the vast quantity of land that they had confiscated. initially indigenous peoples were enslaved but eventually it was felt that the indigenous population was ill suited to the physical demands of forced labour. It was, however, felt that the Black person was a “natural” for slavery. The belief that the African person was less than fully human reasons was applied after the fact to rationalize the profit motive.
The legacy of slavery leads us to ask the question, “what is the value of the human person?” If the value of an individual is determined simply by how much money can be made by using him/her then the reality of slavery will continue. The sad fact is that human trafficking is a sad phenomenon of our modern society. Many persons in Canada today have been forced into slavery for a variety of reasons including prostitution. Statistics in Canada reveal that between 2009 and 2016, there were a total of 1,220 police-reported incidents of human trafficking.
The celebration of the ending of slavery is neither to make persons feel guilty nor is it a premise to bludgeon persons about racism. For me, it is an opportunity to humbly acknowledge our history and to resolve to make a different and better tomorrow. The poet Maya Angelou reminds, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” This year we can declare that that Black Lives Matter and that people are valued more than money or profit as we celebrate the anniversary of the abolition of slavery on August 1.
Rev ‘d. Paul Douglas Walfall
Fort Saskatchewan Community of Faith