Black Canadians: A Brief History
Compiled by Ms. Sadie Kuehn, British Colombia, Canada.
Black slavery arrived in what is now Canada shortly after is brought to North America.
For 200 years, Black Canadian slaves were bought and sold at public auctions, whipped
publicly, and, in some instances, tortured.
So begins Colin Thomson’s (1979) book Blacks in deep snow: Black pioneers in Canada
which has a particular focus on Black people in Western Canada.
Today, the term ‘Black Canadian’ conceals the wide diversity of black people in Canada
who come from many different geographic regions. The earliest black settlers came in
the 1600s. Today, black immigrants come mostly from Africa and the Caribbean, and
from many different cultures within those regions. There is no typical Black Canadian,
but like the rest of Canadians, they reflect the exciting individual and group capabilities
and strengths we have come to expect from citizens of a pluralistic society.
The term black does not refer to biological race which is an unscientific and groundless
construct. What it represents is a range of skin colours and cultures that are socially
defined as ‘black’. As with members of any ‘race’ there is more within group differences
than between group differences.
A Historical Timeline
First know black man to reach North America is Pedro Alonso Nino who sailed
with Columbus in 1492.
Beginning of black settlement in Canada coincides with the establishment of Port
Royal, a French outpost in what is now Nova Scotia.
In Montréal, the first known black man to be sold into slavery in Canada is a
black slave from Madagascar given the name of Olivier Le Jeune.
French Law “Code Noir” regulates the practice of slavery in New France. Among
its statutes are that slaves are chattels to be owned by their masters.
Most of the roughly 1200 black slaves in Canada are domestics.
Slavery is declared legal in New France. Black slaves can be bought and sold (the
existing practice is now codified in law).
A black woman named Angelique is arrested, tried, tortured, convicted and
hanged for allegedly setting fire to her owner’s house after she threatened to sell
her (see http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/angelique/accueil/indexen.html for
more information). She was tortured and then hanged in public view near the
Place d’Armes, Montréal. Black men and women are routinely whipped for
misdemeanors such as entering an all-white public hall or petty theft.
Canadian slaves escape to Vermont where slavery has been abolished.
Underground Railroad begins operating.
Black people living in the Maritimes flee slavery and racism in Canada for the
Northern U.S. via a south-bound ‘underground railroad’. As many as 60% of
Black people in Ontario return to the U.S. after the civil war and 1200 free Blacks
leave for Sierra Leone, Africa.
Slavery is abolished by the legislature of Upper Canada but continues in practice.
A slave, Emmanuel Allen is old in Montréal.
Slavery ends in Québec.
Slavery is abolished within the British Empire. Black enslavement ends, but the
history of second-class citizenship begins. Black people in Canada receive
sporadic, badly financed and, in Ontario and Nova Scotia, segregated schools by
fact and by law (1850) until 1964 (no, not a typo!).
Black Canadians are allowed to sit on juries.
Attempts are made to drive black people out of Canada by citing the climate as
being unsuitable and too harsh for them to endure (despite the fact that they had
been here for more than 2 centuries).
Africville established in Halifax.
Oklahoma adopts statehood. The movement of white settlers into the area forces
black people to flee persecution. About 1000 come to Western Canada
(Saskatchewan and Alberta) in 1911 while others go to Manitoba and Ontario.
Life expectancy for Black North American males is 34 years (49 years for white
men), 38 for women (52 for white women).
Protests around black immigration are circulated in Edmonton and the issue
becomes a political hot potato as noted by L.M. Fortier of Canadian Immigration
at the time:
There is nothing in the Canadian immigration law which bars any person on the
ground of colour, but, since coloured people are not considered as a class likely
to do well in this country, all other regulations respecting health, money, etc., are
strictly enforced and it is quite possible that a number will be rejected on such
Actually, this was untrue as the 1910 immigration act gave the government
enormous discretionary power to regulate immigration through Orders in Council.
Section 38 allowed the government to prohibit landing of immigrants under the
“continuous journey” rule, and of immigrants “belonging to any race deemed
unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada, or of immigrants of any
specified class, occupation or character”. The Act also extended the grounds on
which immigrants could be deported to include immorality and political offenses
(Section 41). The Act introduced the concept of “domicile” which was acquired
after three years of residence in Canada (later five years). In 1910 when Black
Oklahoman farmers developed an interest in moving to Canada to flee increased
racism at home, a number of boards of trade and the Edmonton Municipal
Council called on Ottawa to prevent black immigration. In 1911 an order in
council was drafted prohibiting the landing of “any immigrant belonging to the
Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of
Canada”. The order was never proclaimed, but the movement was nevertheless
effectively stopped by agents hired by the Canadian government, who held public
meetings in Oklahoma to discourage people, and by “strict interpretation” of
medical and character examinations. Of more than 1 million Americans estimated
to have immigrated to Canada between 1896 and 1911, fewer than 1,000 were
African Americans.’’ The Canadian border was virtually closed to black people.
Court rulings allow black people to be legally refused service in Canadian
Ku Klux Klan enters Canada.
Order in council issued replacing previous measures on immigration selection.
The preference was maintained for British, Irish, French and U.S. immigrants.
The categories of admissible European immigrants were expanded to include
healthy applicants of good character with skills and who could readily integrate.
The order gave wide discretion for refusals and Blacks continued to be for the
most part excluded.
Rosemary Brown, human rights activist, feminist and former MP (1972) arrives in
Canada from Trinidad to study at McGill University.
A new Immigration Act was passed, less than a month after it was introduced in
the House (it came into effect 1 June 1953). This Act, which did not make
substantial changes to immigration policy, gave the Minister and officials
substantial powers over selection, admission and deportation. It provided for the
refusal of admission on the grounds of nationality, ethnic group, geographical
area of origin, peculiar customs, habits and modes of life, unsuitability with
regard to the climate, probable inability to become readily assimilated, etc.
Homosexuals, drug addicts and drug traffickers were added to the prohibited
classes. The Act provided for immigration appeal boards, made up of department
officials, to hear appeals from deportation.
Significant numbers of immigrants from West Indies begin to arrive.
Minister of Citizenship and Immigration implemented new Immigration
Regulations that removed most racial discrimination, although Europeans retained
the right to sponsor a wider range of relatives than others.’’
Racially segregated schools in Ontario legally abolished.
Bylaw cited in a Nova Scotia town prevents the burial of a black child in the
Africville destroyed. Cited as one of the worst examples of Canadian racism. See
%20Afro-Canada/africville.htm for the story.
A group of black youth gather in Toronto to protest the ‘innocence’ of police
officers who shot a black youth in the back of his head. In another case, one of
“mistaken identity,” police shot and killed Marcellus Francois while he sat in his
Michaëlle Jean becomes Governor General of Canada