BLACK CANADIAN HISTORY
by Nadine C.
FabbiShushan (June 1998)
This project was made possible by funding
from the U.S. Department of Education, Title VI.
Black Canadian history is very
closely connected to African American history. In fact, until very
recently, most Blacks came to Canada from the U.S. This module will show
how two key U.S. historical events — The American Revolution and the War
of 1812 — as well as the Underground Railway movement — form the roots of
Black history in Canada.
The aim of this module is to
teach students about Canada by connecting the histories of both countries
through that of a particular Canadian racial group. Students should also
gain a greater understanding of North American and world geography as they
actively use maps to find locations and link historical events.
Students will need pencils,
paper, and an atlas or wall maps of Canada, North America, and the world.
Simple exercizes using time lines and maps will be suggested throughout
Overview of Black History in
What is in a name? What is the
difference between "Black Canadian" and "African American"?
In the U.S. most Blacks
call themselves African Americans, but in Canada Blacks refer to
themselves as Black Canadians. Why is there this subtle difference? The
difference in naming has everything to do with the history of immigration
in each country. In the U.S. most Blacks were brought directly as slaves
from Africa and so prefer to be called African Americans to keep their
link to their homeland and heritage alive. Blacks in Canada have a much
more diverse history — very few Black Canadians were brought directly from
Africa. Most early slaves, refugees, and immigrants were from the U.S.
while the majority of recent immigrants are from the Caribbean. Because
Blacks have come to Canada from several different countries, Black
Canadian is the more inclusive and popular name.
Did you know that until the
1960s almost all Black Canadians had come directly from the
Today the majority of
Black Canadians are recent immigrants who have come from either the
Caribbean or Africa. These immigrants far outnumber those who have come
from the U.S. However, the U.S. immigrants formed Canada’s earliest Black
communities and closely link the histories of the two
Though Blacks have immigrated
to Canada from the U.S. since the time of the earliest European
settlements up until the present, the majority of the early Black
immigrants came as a result of three significant American historical
events: the American Revolution (1775-1783), the War of 1812 (1812-1814),
and the Underground Railway movement (1830-1865).
Have the students draw a time
line beginning with 1500 and ending with the year 2000 dividing each
century into quarters. At the year 2000 have them write their name and the
town or city where they live. Now have them mark the major periods of
Black immigration from the U.S. to Canada given above. They might want to
assign these historical periods with a particular color so they stand out
on the time line.
A total of over 35,000 Blacks
immigrated during these three periods: approximately 5,500 came during the
American Revolution; 2,000 during the War of 1812; and over 30,000 when
the Underground Railway was in operation. Have the students write the
appropriate number of Blacks to Canada for each major period of
What is the historical context
of Black history in North America?
A quick overview of Black
history in North America will help to place the Black Canadian experience
in a larger context. Beginning with the landing of Christopher Columbus in
the Caribbean at the end of the 1400s, the New World was opened to
European interest and settlement. The very first Europeans to colonize the
Americas were the Spaniards who immediately set up sugar cane plantations
in the Caribbean. The Spaniards first enslaved the indigenous peoples but
when that population was almost disseminated, the Europeans looked to
Africa for slaves. The first Africans to the Americas were brought by the
Spaniards to be used as slaves in the early 1500s.
Have the students draw lines
on their maps linking Spain and Africa to the Caribbean. By the time
slavery was abolished in the 1800s, over 10 million Africans had been
brought to the New World as slaves. That is approximately one third of the
total population of Canada today! The slave trade in the Caribbean was
underway for almost 100 years before the English and French started to
colonize and settle in what later became the U.S. and Canada.
In the early 1600s the English
and French began to establish colonies on the east coast of North America.
The English established the first permanent colony at Jamestown in
present-day Virginia in 1607; the French established their first permanent
colony the following year at Quebec City in today’s province of Quebec.
Have the students find both early settlement locations on their maps.
Jamestown may not be marked but is just up the James River from Norfolk,
Virginia. If the students follow the St. Lawrence River into the
continent, they will find Quebec City at the place where the river
narrows. The English settlements grew until the entire eastern seaboard in
the U.S. was inhabited by Europeans. These settlements were called the
Thirteen Colonies. During the same period the French established a modest
colony called New France. Both colonies started within a year of each
other and both went through a major transition less than 200 years
In 1759 and 1760 the English
conquered New France and named the four colonies Canada. These included
Nova Scotia (which at that time also included New Brunswick), eastern
Quebec (initially called Lower Canada), and southern Ontario (initially
called Upper Canada). Fifteen years later the Thirteen Colonies fought for
their independence from Britain and renamed themselves the United States
of America. On the maps have the students outline the two early colonies.
New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, eastern Quebec, and southern Ontario can be
labelled both "New France" and "Canada". From the Atlantic Ocean inland,
almost half way to the Mississippi River, are the Thirteen
Have the students mark 1515 on
their time lines as the date that the first Africans were brought as
slaves to the Americas. Now have the students mark the early European
colonies in North America. From 1607 to 1776 have the students color this
period and mark it the Thirteen English Colonies. At 1776 they can draw an
arrow forward and label it the United States of America. From 1608 to 1760
will be marked, New France and from that point on, Canada.
In North America both Native
Americans and Blacks were used as slaves. However, there was a difference
between the slave economy in the two countries. The southern U.S., like
the Caribbean, had a warmer climate and ability to produce massive crops
like cotton. Large plantations could run a very lucrative business if they
used slaves. There was no such economy in Canada. The climate was too cold
for large crop production. Instead the colonists were involved in the fur
trade and tended not to have private slaves. Blacks, and First Nations
peoples (the Canadian term for Native American) were used primarily as
servants by the religious orders, the military, and the merchants. In
general, due to the nature of the economy in Canada, Black slaves were not
treated as harshly or forced to work as hard as in the U.S.
In total, New France had just
over 1,000 Black slaves during its time as a colony while the Thirteen
Colonies had over a half million Black slaves. Quite a difference in
number! Black slaves made up close to 20% of the population in the
Thirteen Colonies and less than 2% in New France. On their maps, next to
the New France/Canada and the British colonies in the south, have the
students write in the respective numbers of Black slaves.
Revolution and BlackImmigration to Canada
Did you know that the first
significant immigration of Blacks to Canada occurred as a result of the
Just before the American
Revolution, in 1759 and 1760, the English conquered the French army in New
France. This event is commonly known of as The Conquest though the French
were not in fact conquered but abandonned by the French army. From that
point on New France became Canada. When the English took over in Canada
they did not abolish slavery, though the practice was becoming
In 1775 the Thirteen Colonies
began to battle against Britain for their freedom and independence.
However, not everyone wanted freedom from the mother country. Many
Americans wanted to remain a colony because they felt they would be better
protected that way. These Americans were called the United Empire
Loyalists (or Tories, as they were known in the States). Approximately
30,000 United Empire Loyalists left the U.S. at this time for Canada.
These Loyalists brought around 2,000 Black slaves with them. Most settled
in Nova Scotia, which included present-day New Brunswick, and some in the
Eastern Townships of Quebec or what was then called Lower
Have the students locate Nova
Scotia and New Brunswick on their maps. Now have them locate the area just
east of Montreal. This region is called The Eastern Townships because of
the practice of awarding land or townships to the Loyalists. Have the
students color in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Eastern Townships
and using a legend describe this color as the location of the first
substantial immigration of Blacks to Canada. Most of these slaves were
freed within the next couple of decades and settled in the local areas.
There were an additional 3,500 Blacks, the Black Loyalists, who also came
to Canada at this time. These Blacks were allowed freedom in Canada for
very political reasons.
Canada has always been a
smaller country, in terms of population, than the U.S. Today the
population of the U.S. is almost 10 times that of Canada! Because of this,
and because of the constant threat of being absorbed by the U.S., Canada
has had to employ clever means to protect itself. Like David, in the story
David and Goliath, Canada cannot rely on numbers or strength to protect
itself against the U.S., but must come up with more creative means. That
is just what Canada did during the American Revolution concerning Black
The American Revolution caused
great concern in Canada. Fearful that the independence movement would
spread north, Canada promised Black slaves their freedom, land, and
provisions if they would desert their masters and fight for the English.
Over 3,500 former Black slaves did just that and most were taken to Nova
Scotia and New Brunswick. Unfortunately, while these Blacks won their
freedom, the Canadian government was not very generous about the land it
awarded the new immigrants. Most of the plots were too small or of such
poor quality that the Black families could not support themselves and were
forced to work as laborers in the white communities.
Some of these first Black
pioneers became so disillusioned with their life in the new country that
they took the opportunity to sail back to Africa. In the late 1700s the
English paid for the passage of over 1,000 Blacks to Sierra Leone in
Africa. Over 50 of the passengers died en route. The rest established the
settlement of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone today.
Have the students locate
Halifax in Nova Scotia and draw a line from there to Freetown, Sierra
Leone on the west coast of Africa. On their time lines have them mark the
date 1792 as the year that four ships carried over 1,000 Blacks from
Halifax to Africa.
The War of 1812
and Black Immigration to Canada
What is the War of 1812 and
how did it affect Black immigration to Canada?
The War of 1812 is not as well
known as the American Revolution, yet there are several very interesting
points about the war that are important in U.S. history. First, few people
know that Canada and the U.S. have actually warred against one another. In
the War of 1812 the Americans declared war on Britain and attacked the
closest English colony — Canada. Second, the American National Anthem was
written during this war. And third, the second largest immigration of
Blacks to Canada occurred as a result of the war. Over 2,000 Black
refugees came to Canada in the early 1800s, during the War of
The events leading up to the
War of 1812 are complicated but there are perhaps two main reasons why the
Americans declared war on Britain. First, ever since the American
Revolution, the English had never fully pulled their troops from the Great
Lakes region. This annoyed the Americans. Second, the Napoleonic Wars were
going on in Europe at this time and the English, in an effort to protect
their economy from French embargoes, took control of the high seas and
trade. In several instances they intercepted U.S. ships angering the
Americans. Finally, in 1812 the U.S. declared war on Britain attacking
The Americans were confident
that it would be easy to conquer Canada. President Thomas Jefferson said
that capturing Canada was, "a mere question of marching." Instead, through
clever tactics, Canada captured several U.S. forts including Detroit and
managed to burn the White House to the ground. Canada’s success was in
part due to the Black slaves who were once again promised freedom, land,
and provisions if they would leave their masters and support the English.
Over 2,000 Blacks did so and were eventually taken to Nova Scotia and New
Brunswick. Once again, Canada did not give all that it promised making
survival difficult for the Black community and forcing dependence on the
Have the students mark the War
of 1812 on their time lines and write in that 2,000 Black refugees came to
Canada at that time.
During this second major
period of the immigration of Blacks to Canada another key American
historical event occurred. During the War of 1812, Baltimore was just a
small fort called Fort McHenry. One evening in 1814, a British ship
started to attack the fort. On the ship was an American prisoner, a lawyer
and poet named Francis Scott Key. Key, emotionally moved by the sight of
the American flag still flying strong throughout the bombardment, wrote a
poem. The poem was called "The Star-Spangled Banner." On 3 March 1931 the
song became the National Anthem. Imagine that "The Star-Spangled Banner"
was inspired by a war between Canada and the U.S.!
Do you know why Canada started
to be seen as the "Promised Land" by African Americans?
In 1793 the
Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada (today’s Ontario), John Graves Simcoe,
presented a bill to the government to the abolish slavery in Upper Canada.
The bill was unanimously passed. Though it was several years before
abolition of slavery became law in Canada, nonetheless this was an
important date in the history of both countries. From this point on Black
slaves saw Canada as a place of freedom and sometimes referred to it as
Canaan, or the Promised Land — the land where Moses lead the ancient
Hebrews out of slavery from Egypt. Freedom from slavery was now within
reach. The Black slaves just had to get there. Simcoe promised that any
Blacks who came into Canada, either as slaves or on their own, would be
granted freedom. Canada also refused to comply with the U.S. request that
runaway slaves be returned to their masters, nor would Canada allow
American slave hunters into the country. Slowly the word got out that
Canada was a place of freedom, the Promised Land, where Blacks could live
without fear of capture or punishment.
It didn’t take long for the
plantation owners to realize the threat of Canada either! Because there
was little the slave owners could do about Canadian laws, many tried to
frighten their slaves into believing that once in Canada all sorts of
horrible things would happen to them such as geese plucking out their
Have the students mark 1793 as
the beginning of the abolishment of slavery in Canada. Now have them mark
the 1834 as the year the law abolishing slavery in the British colonies
went into effect. Finally, have them mark the date 1865 as the year
slavery was abolished in the U.S. Beginning in 1793 Blacks started to make
their way to Canada, but it was really once slavery was abolished that the
exodus from the U.S. went into full swing. Over 30,000 Black slaves came
to Canada between 1830 and 1865 seeking freedom. They came via the
Did you know that the
Underground Railway is the reason for the greatest immigration of Blacks
from the U.S.?
The Underground Railway
was neither underground nor a railway, but it was inspired by the very
first steam-powered trains in North American in the 1830s. Trains were
suddenly a way of quick and easy travel and came into use at the same time
that Canada abolished slavery. Using the train as an inspiration for
travelling to freedom, Black slaves and abolitionists developed an entire
secret network for escape based on codes using train lingo. "Conductors"
were abolitionists; "cargo" or "passengers" were those Blacks trying to
win their freedom; "stations" were safe houses where the fugitives could
stop for food and shelter or destination towns.
Harriet Tubman was one of the
most famous "conductors" during this time. In fact, she was so famous and
successful that there was a bounty out for her capture. Her station was
St. Catharines, Ontario where she lived for a time when her life was most
threatened. In all she is said to have brought over 300 fugitives to St.
Catherines and to not have lost one "passenger" along the way. Harriet had
been a slave until she was 28. At that point she escaped and dedicated the
rest of her life to helping her family and other runaway slaves win their
Have the students locate St. Catharines, Ontario on their maps. It is near Niagara Falls, just north of
Buffalo between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. This was a major entry point
into Canada. The other major entry point was at Detroit and Windsor on the
other side of Lake Erie. These were the two most popular entry points into
Canada as they were the furthest south. They were also so narrow that
slave hunters hid in the areas and caught many Blacks who tried to make it
over the border.
The fugitive Blacks who came
into Canada were not given land or provisions by the Canadian government
as were the earlier immigrants and refugees. Most settled in and around
the Great Lakes Region and worked on local farms, for the railways, or as
wage laborers. They formed segregated communities for support and to
protect one another against American kidnappers. On a map of Canada have
the students locate and highlight the following towns and cities all
located between Lake Erie and Lake Huron: Windsor, Chatham, London, St.
Catharines, Hamilton, Guelph, Toronto, Barrie, and Owen Sound. These were
the major destination points for the over 30,000 fugitives. In this final
major immigration movement, Blacks settled further west and in greater
numbers than before. On their time lines have students locate the period
of the Underground Railway and write that around 30,000 Blacks came to
Canada during those years.
Blacks in Canada today
In 1865 slavery was finally
abolished in the U.S. At that point thousands of Blacks who had come to
Canada either on the Underground Railway or earlier, returned to the
States. Many had family or friends that they’d left behind and others
simply missed home. This wasn’t the end of Black immigration to Canada.
Hundreds of immigrants still came north as a result of prejudice and
violence in the U.S. At the turn of the century approximately 1,000 Blacks
immigrated from Oklahoma to Alberta to flee discrimination.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that
Black immigrants began to come to Canada from other countries. This is
because the Canadian immigration policy had biases against non-whites
making it difficult for those groups to gain entry into the country. These
new immigrants quickly outnumbered the original Black population. Today
there is a significant Caribbean community in Toronto and in Montreal.
Those Blacks from English-speaking Caribbean countries settled in Toronto
while those from French-speaking countries went to Montreal where the
official language is French. Have the students locate the Caribbean on
their maps drawing a line between Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and
Toronto; and Haiti and Montreal.
Today less than 2% of the
Canadian population is Black. The community there is far smaller than in
the States where almost 13% of the population is African American. Because
of both the early settlement history and the later immigration from the
Caribbean, the majority of Black Canadians live in the East in Nova
Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario.
Though Canada has been a
historical destination point for Blacks fleeing slavery and violence in
the U.S., Canada is not without racism. There has always been
discrimination in Canada and today it still exists particularly against
visible minorities. It is something that the government, the schools, and
activist groups are working on constantly. There is also much strength and
solidarity in the Black community. Once again, a major historical movement
in the U.S. had an enormous impact on Black Canadians — the Civil Rights
Movement. Beginning in the 1960s, and with the inspiration of the Civil
Rights movement in the U.S., Black Canadians began to identify and work
against institutional racist practices and blatant discrimination as well
as to revive Black culture and pride. In 1996 an elementary school in Nova
Scotia became the first school in Canada to incorporate black studies into
its entire curriculum. The school is now 100% Afrocentric. "If it is
successful," reported the Halifax News recently, "the students will
enter other schools secure in the strength that comes from knowing their
As is evident with Black
Canadian history, Canadian history is closely linked to that of the U.S.
Early Black history in Canada links Canadian history to the American
Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Underground Railway. It was these
events that saw the migration of thousands of Blacks from the U.S. to
Canada in the name of freedom. Today, many Black communities in Nova
Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario have their roots in U.S.
history linking our two counties firmly together.
CANADIAN HISTORY: BIBLIOGRAPHY
Books for Children:
The Black Canadian:
Their History and Contributions by Carter, Velma and Levero (Lee)
Carter. Redimore Books Inc., Edmonton, Alberta, 1989. (This book is in the
curriculum stacks at Suzzallo Library F1035.N3.C37, 1989. In just 82 pages
with plenty of photos, maps, newspaper articles, etc. The book covers the
history of Blacks in Canada making many references and links between Black
American history and Black Canadian history. Through a bit dry, this book
is a solid starting point for Black Canadian history.
Northern Star to
Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad by Gena K. Gorrell
with a foreward by Rosemary Brown, Delacorte Press, 1996. (Available in
the children's library in Suzzallo E450.G68, 1997. This book is perfect
for children or teachers. It is written in an interesting and engaging way
with many fascinating tales told throughout. The author begins with a
discussion about slavery in general, moves into the history of slavery in
North America, and then describes the Underground Railroad from a Canadian
perspective. The book is also full of works of art, new clippings, and
photos all which enhance the already lively story
Walker, James W. A
History of Blacks in Canada: A Study Guide for Teachers and Parents.
This is called Black
Web and through it is mainly for Black in Toronto, it has a lot of
interesting information about Blacks across Canada. There is a history
link with many fascinating stories about Canadian Blacks; much on the
Underground Railway; bibliographies for teachers and students; and
activities for children. This is a great and accessible
World Wide Web
-- This appears to be an individually
produced website. It has an extensive and accurate time line and links to
famous Black Canadian and Black Canadian history.