Canada’s history of slavery and segregation
By Avreet Jagdev
Since 1995, Canada has celebrated Black History Month. It is a time to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of Black Canadians, but also to acknowledge the darker part of our history – the parts that are too often overlooked.
Few people know about the history of slavery and segregation in Canada. The darker parts of our history have been continually glossed over, and in some cases, ignored entirely. In fact, many Canadians believe that our only role in slavery was as a safe haven for enslaved African Americans who escaped to Canada through the underground railroad.
Despite the lack of awareness surrounding it, slavery existed in Canada for almost two hundred years, between 1671 and 1834. During this time, about 4,000 enslaved African people were transported from British and French colonies to Canada.
Owning slaves was incredibly common across Canada. Slave ownership was not exclusive to the rich or elite either; on the contrary, people of all social and economic backgrounds took part in slave ownership. Not only did slave labour provide profits, but it also indicated social standing.
There is a commonly-held belief that slavery in Canada was not as cruel or violent as American slavery. This, however, is untrue: enslaved people in Canada were stripped of their basic human rights and freedoms. They were dehumanized heavily, and treated like mere commodities. Many faced violence and abuse at the hands of those who exercised ownership over them. Some were even tortured and murdered.
In 1834, Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act came into effect, which abolished slavery across the British Empire, including Canada. However, the end of legal slavery did not result in the freedom of Black Canadians. The abolition of slavery was followed by systemic racial segregation across Canada. Justified through a lens of racial inferiority, Black and racialized Canadians were segregated and denied equal opportunity to many aspects of life, including healthcare, education, and jobs.
Racially segregated schools were established in Ontario and Nova Scotia in the early 1800s, and these laws existed up until 1950. Racial segregation within education extended to post-secondary institutions as well, with many denying admission to coloured applicants.
In addition to education, segregation based on race also affected public areas such as theatres, swimming pools, and skating rinks.
Some public amenities had separate seating or areas reserved for Black people, while others banned Black people entirely. For example, Edmonton City Council ruled in 1923 that Black people would be prohibited from using city swimming pools, to prevent ‘mixed bathing’ between white and coloured folk.
Policies such as this were widespread across Canada up until the late 1970s, when the Canadian Human Rights Act was passed. However, even with the legal end to slavery and racial segregation, Anti-Black discrimination and racism is ongoing.
Understanding the Anti-Black racism that prevails today requires a vital understanding and acknowledgement of Canada’s long-running history of Anti-Blackness. In order to truly honour Black History Month, we must go beyond convenient forms of allyship and face the entirety of our history, even the uncomfortable parts.