Friend, author and fellow-blogger John Fioravanti graciously accepted my request to do a guest post to wrap up Black History Month! It quickly became apparent that one post was inadequate, so John has agreed to do a series of two posts about the history of African-Canadians. Today I share with you John’s excellent and informative Part I. I hope you enjoy and I know you will learn something new, for I certainly did!
Black History In Ontario – Early Years
This series of articles is inspired by the revelations of my research into Black history in Canada for Black History Month. I am impressed beyond words by the courage and resourcefulness of so many people of African ancestry that escaped to Canada as slaves or freely chose Canada as their new home. Ontario is my home province, hence the focus of this series. It is my hope that this effort to summarize the early history of Black Canadians in Ontario will give readers a helpful perspective for today’s realities.
In another post, we will turn our attention to the people who escaped slavery from the American South in the 19th Century by way of the Underground Railway. Four of the five ‘stations’ or destinations were in Ontario, and the fifth was in Nova Scotia. I will explore their life experiences as they struggled to create meaningful and happy lives among an often-hostile White majority.From 1608-1763, today’s Ontario was part of the colony of New France. After the British conquered New France in 1763, it was renamed Quebec. Ontario finally emerged as a separate territory called Upper Canada in 1791. The French part of the old Quebec colony was renamed Lower Canada. The two Canadas were politically reunited into a single colony, the Province of Canada in 1841. The part that used to be Upper Canada was referred to as Canada West. In 1867 the separate Canadian colonies united into a political federation called The Dominion of Canada. The former Province of Canada divided again at the Ottawa River into the modern provinces of Ontario and Quebec.Although slavery was abolished in the Canadian colonies well before this was accomplished in the United States, make no mistake, the attitude of white superiority was just as prevalent in Canada as it was anywhere in America or the white nations of Europe at that time. This attitude was not born in North America, it was transplanted here from Europe. So the Blacks who escaped or freely migrated north from the States beginning in the late 18th Century were not welcomed warmly with open arms by the Whites in Canada. They were not considered equal citizens and most often faced disdain and discrimination at the hands of white Canadians.
Early Upper Canada History
Originally part of the colony of New France, Upper Canada was home to French fur traders and Jesuit Missionaries who came to the area east and south of Georgian Bay to convert the Indigenous people they named as Huron. The French did not focus on the Upper Canada area to create large settlements – that came after the British took over.
As a result of the Seven Years War (The French and Indian War), New France passed into British Possession in 1763. There are records about the existence of Black slaves in the settled areas of New France around Montreal and Quebec City. Many of them were brought by transient officials from France and often resold in the colony. Most of the slaves were used as domestic servants and as farm laborers.
After 1763, Upper Canada became home to Loyalists and newly freed slaves from the Thirteen Colonies as a direct result of the American Revolution. Some British officials in the American colonies from 1775 onwards promised freedom to any Black slaves willing to escape and join the British army. Over 300 Blacks responded to this offer by British Governor Lord John Dunsmore of Virginia in 1775. In 1779 Sir Henry Clinton, commander-in-chief of all British forces in the Thirteen Colonies promised slaves who escaped protection in territory under their control.
Approximately 5,000 to 6,000 Loyalists left the United States for Upper Canada during and after the war ended in 1783. About 10 percent of this number were Black Loyalists – and most of them went on to settle in Nova Scotia. Some arrived as freed men while most came as slaves with their Loyalist owners. Blacks who had escaped from their owners to fight in the British army and arrived as free men were called Black Loyalists. According to records, only a few dozen Black Loyalists settled in Upper Canada between Cornwall and Windsor.
Under British law, the slaves of White Loyalists were to remain slaves. There were slaves in most if not all the Loyalist settlements in Upper Canada. By 1791 the veterans of Butler’s Rangers had 300 slaves in the Niagara area – designated as domestic servants.
Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe
Before the American Revolution, the abolitionist movement was making inroads in the Canadas as Britain had outlawed the slave trade in the British Isles in 1772. By 1791 Loyalist slave owners in Upper Canada began to worry about losing their property and began to sell their slaves to Americans across the border. One such incident, involving a slave named Chloe Cooley was so brutal that Simcoe decided to free all the province’s slaves.
In 1793, Adam Vrooman, a former sergeant with Butler’s Rangers, owned Chloe Cooley and decided to sell her to an American across the Niagara River in March. Chloe was upset by the impending sale, so Vrooman beat her, tied her up and forced her into a boat with the help of two other men. She screamed as they rowed her across the river.The entire incident was witnessed by another Butler’s Rangers veteran, Black Loyalist Peter Martin. Along with another witness, he reported the incident to Simcoe’s Executive Council (Cabinet) who decided to charge Vrooman with disturbing the peace. Eventually, the charge was dropped because Cooley was considered property under the law.
Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe was outraged by the incident and moved swiftly to bring in the Act Against Slavery by July of 1793. It provided for the eventual abolition of slavery in Upper Canada by prohibiting the importation of slaves and freeing the children of slaves when they turned 21. By 1819 there were no more slaves in Upper Canada.
Thank you, John! We are looking forward to Part II!