So much to learn : The untold stories of slavery in Canada

So much to learn : The untold stories of slavery in Canada
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This 1786 painting, titled "Portrait of a Haitian woman," was done by Franois Malpart de Beaucourt and is believed to be an enslaved woman named Marie-Thrse Zmire at age 15. (Wikimedia Commons/McCord Museum)


TORONTO -- A pregnant teen escaping captivity in a wintry Quebec. A young woman forced to pose nude for a painter in Montreal. The son of a free man tied up in a Toronto shed.

These are Canadian stories, just a few among hundreds of Black slave narratives from the colonies that became Canada. Stories of enslavement are not unique to the United States, though many Canadian history books would have readers believe that the Underground Railroad was the beginning and end of the countrys link to slavery. In fact, there were thousands of slaves, most of them of Indigenous decent, in the colonies that became Canada.

If we are going to reckon with the realities and the legacies of racism and anti-Black racism we have to give attention to these experiences, said Natasha Henry , the president of the Ontario Black History Society , whose doctoral research titled One Too Many: The Enslavement of Africans in Early Ontario, 1760 1834 aims to fill gaps in the history of Upper Canada and slavery. It gets people to really see how connected Canada was to the enslavement of African people that ushered in capitalism and contributed to modernity. Its a huge gap in our historical narrative.

In 2020, more than 180 years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, theres a push to right centuries of wrongdoing. A renewed racial reckoning in the U.S. and Canada began earlier this year with the death of George Floyd, a Black man arrested by police in Minneapolis. His death at the hands of a white police officer reignited the Black Lives Matter movement as it relates to police reform, but has stretched beyond law enforcement. Statues and names rooted in a history of slavery are being re-examined too. Even prominent American country music groups have rebranded themselves, shedding racial signifiers Dixie and antebellum, words with Confederate origins.

In Canada too, advocates have called for the renaming of streets and schools dedicated to historic slave owners like Henry Dundas, who tried to delay the end of slavery in the British Empire. Canadian activists have also renewed calls for Emancipation Day in Ontario, Aug. 1, which commemorates the abolition of slavery across the British Empire, to be declared a national holiday.

As monuments to white enslavers are reconsidered, a small group of Canadian scholars are researching the untold stories of Black and Indigenous people who were enslaved in Canada, in hopes that their stories may become more prominent.

Some of their stories have been commemorated in small ways. In Ontario, a plaque pays tribute to Chloe Cooley, a Black enslaved woman whose violent resistance as she was sold to a new owner in 1793 is considered to have paved the way for the gradual abolition of slavery in the British Empire. In Montreal, a public square is named for Marie-Joseph Anglique, a Black enslaved woman who was convicted of setting fire to her owners home in 1734, burning down much of present-day Old Montreal.
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