July 27, 2023Print | PDF
The following article was prepared by Heena Mistry, director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Laurier.
Aug. 1 marks Emancipation Day, which commemorates the day in 1834 when the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into effect across the British Empire. Slavery existed in what is now Canada until its abolition in 1834.
Despite mainstream narratives of Canadian history depicting the country as a safe haven for Americans escaping enslavement via the Underground Railroad, Canada has its own long history of slavery.1 On March 24, 2021, the House of Commons unanimously voted to officially designate Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day. Although Emancipation Day was only officially recognized in Canada in 2021, Black communities in Canada have celebrated it since the 1850s.2 After the abolition of slavery, people of African descent in Canada continued to face exclusion from public spaces as well as segregation in housing, education and employment through both specific law and practices.
The enslavement of Black and Indigenous peoples is part of Canada’s history of colonization. Slavery predates the arrival of Europeans, as some Indigenous communities enslaved those captured in war.3 European colonization brought chattel slavery to Canada, in which people were more rigidly treated as they were property.4 Canadians also benefitted from and were implicated in slavery outside of Canada, through their involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and the exchange of products that enslaved people produced in the Caribbean, such as rum, molasses, tobacco and sugar.
The enslavement, buying and selling of Black and Indigenous peoples lasted from the early 1600s, in New France, until the abolition of slavery came into effect throughout British North America in 1834. Most enslaved peoples in New France were Indigenous and were often called “Panis.”5 Historians who have written about the experiences of enslaved peoples in Canada note the ubiquity of slavery in New France and British North America. They also note the importance of the resistance of enslaved peoples, such as Marie-Joseph Angélique and Sophia Pooley, to their enslavement and to slavery as an institution.
Outside of Canada, the abolition of slavery in 1834 did not mark the end of unfree labour migration in the British Empire. In 1835, the British government took out one of the largest loans in history to finance a compensation package to planters who held people in bondage, as required by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Rather than paying reparations to formerly enslaved peoples, this money was used to fund planters in the Caribbean to import indentured servants, mainly from India and China, and was invested in plantations that laid the groundwork for the consolidation of European colonization in Asia and Africa. Many of the diaspora communities who were displaced by both slavery and indenture live in Canada.6