Yes, despite our national myths, Canada did have slavery

fugitive slaves.jpg

By Yves Engler, rabble.ca, March 29, 2017

We love our tales about how Canada offered sanctuary to U.S. slaves for decades, but the unabridged version is it sustained African bondage for much longer.

In a recent rabble.ca story titled "Canada's earliest immigration policies made it a safe haven for escaped slaves," Penney Kome ignores the fact that Africans were held in bondage here for 200 years and that the Atlantic provinces had important ties to the Caribbean plantation economies.

According to Kome, Canada's relationship to slavery consisted of the oft-discussed Underground Railway that brought Africans in bondage north to freedom. But, she ignores the southbound "underground railroad" during the late 1700s that took many Canadian slaves to Vermont and other Northern U.S. states that had abolished slavery. Even more slaves journeyed to freedom in Michigan and New England after the war of 1812.

For over 200 years, New France and the British North America colonies held Africans in bondage. The first recorded slave sale in New France took place in 1628. There were at least 3,000 African slaves in what are now known as Québec, Ontario and the Maritimes. Leading historical figures such as René Bourassa, James McGill, Colin McNabb, Joseph Papineau and Peter Russell all owned slaves and some were strident advocates of the practice.

After conquering Quebec, Britain strengthened the laws that enabled slavery. In The Blacks in Canada, Robin Winks explains:

"On three occasions explicit guarantees were given to slave owners that their property would be respected, and between 1763 and 1790 the British government added to the legal structures so that a once vaguely defined system of slavery took on clearer outlines."

It wasn’t until 1833 that slavery was abolished in what is now Canada and across the rest of the British Empire.

Canadians propped up slavery in a number of other ways. Canada helped the British quell Caribbean slave rebellions, particularly during the 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution, which disrupted the region's slave economy. Much of Britain’s Halifax-based squadron arrived on the shores of the West Indies in 1793, and many of the ships that set sail to the Caribbean at this time were assembled in the town’s naval yard. Additionally, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick provided "sticks for the furnishing of a variety of naval stores, especially masts and spars, to the West Indies squadron at Jamaica, Antigua, and Barbados."

A number of prominent Canadian-born (or based) individuals fought to capture and re-establish slavery in the French colonies. Dubbed the "Father of the Canadian Crown," Prince Edward Duke of Kent departed for the West Indies aboard a Halifax gunboat in 1793. As a Major General, he led forces that captured Guadalupe, St. Lucia and Martinique. Today, many streets and monuments across the country honour a man understood to have first applied the term "Canadian" to both the English and French inhabitants of Upper and Lower Canada.

In what may be Canada's most significant contribution to the British war effort in the Caribbean, a dozen Nova Scotia privateers captured at least 57 enemy vessels in the West Indies between 1793 and 1805. Licensed by the state to seize enemy boats during wartime, "privateers were essential tools of war until the rise of large steam navies in the mid-nineteenth century."

But Nova Scotia privateers weren’t solely motivated by reasons of state. They sought to protect a market decimated by French privateers. In A Private War in the Caribbean: Nova Scotia Privateering, 1793-1805, Dan Conlin writes that “in a broader sense privateering was an armed defence of the [Maritimes'] West Indies market.”

Outside of its role in suppressing Caribbean slave rebellions, the Maritimes literally fed the slave system for decades. In Emancipation Day, Natasha Henry explains:

"Very few Canadians are aware that at one time their nation's economy was firmly linked to African slavery through the building and sale of slave ships, the sale and purchase of slaves to and from the Caribbean, and the exchange of timber, cod, and other food items from the Maritimes for West-Indian slave-produced goods."

A central component of the economy revolved around providing the resources that enabled slavery. Nova Scotia and Newfoundland generated great wealth selling cheap, high-protein food to keep millions of “enslaved people working 16 hours a day.”

In Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky explains:

“In the 17th century, the strategy for sugar production, a labour-intensive agro-industry, was to keep the manpower cost down through slavery. At harvest time, a sugar plantation was a factory with slaves working 16 hours or more a day -- chopping cane by hand as close to the soil as possible, burning fields, hauling cane to a mill, crushing, boiling. To keep working under the tropical sun the slaves needed salt and protein. But plantation owners did not want to waste any valuable sugar planting space on growing food for the hundreds of thousands of Africans who were being brought to each small Caribbean island. The Caribbean produced almost no food. At first slaves were fed salted beef from England, but New England colonies [as well as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia] soon saw the opportunity for salt cod as cheap, salted nutrition."

In Capitalism and Slavery, post-independence Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Eric Williams highlights the role of cod in the Caribbean plantations: "The Newfoundland fishery depended to a considerable extent on the annual export of dried fish to the West Indies, the refuse or 'poor John' fish, 'fit for no other consumption.'" High-quality cod from today's Atlantic Canada was sent to the Mediterranean while the reject fish was sold to Caribbean slave-owners.

From 1770-1773 Newfoundland and Nova Scotia sent 60,620 quintals (one quintal equals 100 pounds) and 6,280 barrels of cod to the West Indies, which comprised 40 per cent of all imports. These numbers increased significantly after the American Revolution resulted in a ban on U.S. trade to the British Caribbean colonies. In 1789 alone 58 vessels carried 61,862 quintals of fish from Newfoundland to the Caribbean Islands.

When it comes to our histories, we choose where and how to focus our lens. A bird's eye view of the historical landscape quickly reveals that Canada did a great deal more to support African enslavement than undermine it.

 

Canada 150 is a celebration of Indigenous genocide
 

By Pamela Palmater, Now Toronto, March 29, 2017

For many Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island (North America), it's difficult to imagine Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – who has said that "no relationship is more important to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples" – celebrating the last 150 years of brutal colonization and the foundation of what is now known as Canada. 

This year, the federal government plans to spend half a billion dollars on events marking Canada's 150th anniversary. Meanwhile, essential social services for First Nations people to alleviate crisis-level socio-economic conditions go chronically underfunded. Not only is Canada refusing to share the bounty of its own piracy; it's using that same bounty to celebrate its good fortune. Arguably, every firework, hot dog and piece of birthday cake in Canada's 150th celebration will be paid for by the genocide of Indigenous peoples and cultures.

Many places are struggling with the nation's genocidal origins. 

In Halifax, the school board voted to change the name of Cornwallis Junior High because its namesake, Edward Cornwallis, was responsible for putting bounties on the scalps of Mi'kmaw people, causing many deaths. 

Likewise, in Toronto, Ryerson University has come under scrutiny for its namesake, Egerton Ryerson, a strong supporter of residential schools, where thousands of Indigenous children died violent, torturous deaths. 

Even the "Famous Five" women long celebrated as champions of women's rights have had their hero status questioned because of their support for sterilization of Indigenous women. Celebrating genocide is not what most would consider a modern Canadian value.

While use of the term "genocide" to describe Canada's treatment of Indigenous peoples has created a great deal of debate, there has always been a recognition that, at minimum, Canada was guilty of "cultural genocide," even if individuals couldn't bring themselves to accept more sinister intentions. 

Former prime minister Paul Martin told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that it was time to call the residential schools policy what it was: "cultural genocide." 

Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin weighed in on Canada's dismal human rights record, saying that residential schools were attempts to commit "cultural genocide" against Indigenous peoples. 

While these comments were made before the TRC report was tabled in late 2015, they did raise questions in the public sphere about how to recognize genocide when it's not part of something like the Holocaust or the war in Rwanda. 

Despite the sensitive nature of making the claim of genocide, the TRC went further after investigating the historical record, stating that the totality of policies toward Indigenous peoples amounted to cultural, biological and physical genocide. 

The difficult part about public discourse related to genocide is that the majority of Canadians don't have all the facts. 

Most mistakenly believe genocide only occurs when millions of people are killed in concentration camps. They're not taught in school about the real history of the atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples that over time resulted in millions dying. Some universities teach genocide studies without any mention of the lethal colonization process in Canada. 

The real history, however, shows that even after signing peace treaties with First Nations, laws were enacted in Canada offering bounties for scalps of Indigenous men, women and children. The treaty negotiation process itself was conducted under conditions of starvation or threats of violence. While some argue that these acts were committed pre-Confederation, it must be kept in mind that they are in fact how Canada became Canada. 

"Indian policy" was based on acquiring Indigenous lands and resources and reducing financial obligations to Indigenous peoples. The primary methodology was either assimilation or elimination. These acts included confining Indigenous peoples to tiny reserves and forbidding them to hunt, fish or provide for their families, forcing them to live on unhealthy and insufficient rations that caused ill health and starvation. 

It didn't stop there. Other genocidal acts included the forced sterilization of Indigenous women and little girls and the mass theft from families of Indigenous children, many of whom were physically and sexually assaulted, experimented on, tortured and starved at residential schools – leading to the deaths of thousands. 

This is how Canada cleared the land for farms, mining, oil extraction and development. It simply would not be the wealthy country it is, one of the best countries in the world to live and raise a family, were it not for the removal of Indigenous peoples from the source of Canada's wealth. 

The real crime, however, is not only Canada's failure to take steps to right the wrongs of the past. 

Today, more Indigenous children are taken from their families – now put into foster care – than at the height of the residential schools cruelty. The over-incarceration of Indigenous men, women and children continues at alarming rates. Even though Indigenous people represent only 4 per cent of the population, some prisons contain nearly 100 per cent Indigenous inmates. 

The federal government and law enforcement agencies have allowed the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls to continue with little intervention – suggesting complicity in the deaths.

The prime minister spoke at National Aboriginal Day ceremonies in 2016 about "the importance of reconciliation and the process of truth-telling" in healing Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples.

He has no right to speak about reconciliation before he takes the necessary steps to make amends. Canada has no right to ask any one of us to talk about moving forward until the prime minister and all premiers take responsibility for what their institutions have done – and continue to do – to Indigenous peoples. No amount of token showcasing of Indigenous art, songs or dances in Canada's 150th celebration will stop the intergenerational pain and suffering, suicides, police abuse, sub-standard health care, housing and water, or the extinction of the majority of Indigenous languages. 

Perhaps Canada should humble itself, step back, cancel its plans and undertake the hard work necessary to make amends for its legacy. Then we could all celebrate the original treaty vision of mutual respect, prosperity and protection envisioned by our ancestors. Until then, I'll pass on the cake.

Pamela Palmater is a Mi'kmaw citizen member of Eel River Bar First Nation. She has been practising Indigenous law for 18 years and is currently an associate professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.

 

Posted April 5, 2016