A Brief History
On May 29, 1733, the colonial government of New France located in Quebec City reaffirmed the right of Canadians (meaning European Canadians, citizens of New France) to own and keep slaves.
Slavery in Canada is a subject often ignored, especially when the topic of escaped slaves from the United States fleeing to Canada is discussed. (No mention of Canadian slavery ever came up when I went to school.) In fact, New France allowed the practice of slavery for 2 centuries, from 1632 to 1834. This area includes New France in what is now the independent country of Canada and in that part of New France that included Louisiana in the American South.
Slavery was considered “gauche” in New France in the early years, but was tacitly allowed though not technically legal until the Raudot Ordinance of 1709. Slavery had become increasingly common in Canada since the 1680’s, and by 1709 legal status was readily accepted. The French had a history of slavery in their Caribbean territories making this transition an easy one.
Most slaves in Canada/New France were Native Americans, although Blacks from Africa showed up in increasing numbers since the 1680’s, with an official Black population of only 11 African slaves by 1709. Prior to 1709 Canadians had a hard time getting the French government in Paris to endorse the importation of African slaves to Canada, because these French officials thought Canada was too cold for Blacks! The price of Black slaves was many times the price of Native American slaves. During the years of slavery in New France, about 1400 Black African slaves were transported to Canada. In 1685, The Black Code was issued as the Royal Edict of 1685, governing the rights of slaves and slave owners and outlining permitted treatment of slaves. Theoretically, a freed slave could become a French citizen. Slaves could be whipped and punished, but not killed, mutilated or tortured. (What did they think whipping was?) Native American slaves were permitted an education and conversion to Christianity, and also had the (somewhat dubious) possibility of becoming a French citizen.
When the French were defeated at Montreal in 1760 by the British, the terms of capitulation included 55 articles outlining the rights of French Canadians now that Canada was British and no longer New France. Article 47 allowed French Canadians to maintain slavery in Quebec, the most “French” part of Canada. (The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended the Seven Years War and ceded New France/Canada to Britain.)
After the American Revolution ended in 1783, many Loyalist British Americans moved to Canada and brought their slaves North with them, greatly increasing the number of Africans in Canada, but not for long. Slavery in Canada was outlawed by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, gradually ending slavery throughout the British Empire.
An aspect of slavery in Canada that also receives little attention in History class, is the fact that Native Americans also owned and kept slaves, both of other Native Americans and of White Europeans as well.
Question for students (and subscribers): Were you aware of Canada’s history of slavery? What other countries or places can you tell us that practiced slavery that we may not be aware of? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Elgersman, Maureen G. Unyielding Spirits: Black Women and Slavery in Early Canada and Jamaica. Routledge, 1999.