Slaves in Canada

In New France many residents kept slaves since the early eighteen century. Reputable people and institutions, such as Governor Vaudreuil, Bishop Saint-Vallier, and General Hospital were slave owners.

When the British took over Canada in 1760 there were 6,604 slaves in New France. Most of them were Panis – representatives of First Nations. The rest were blacks.

British Governor James Murray made it clear that the Canadians would be permitted to retain their slaves. He even hoped to bring more. Thus he asked a friend in New York in 1763 to help him bring to Canada “two Stout Young fellows” and, so that they wouldn’t be lonely, “for each a clean young Wife”.

Reading the papers of the late eighteenth century we can see that they contain many advertisements for slaves for sale (for about 50 pounds each). We can find rewards for capturing runaways.

During the American Revolution, British offered emancipation to the slaves who deserted their rebel masters to serve with British forces. Thus George Washington saw his slaves desert and join the forces against him.

Hundreds of American slaves joined up, and after the United Kingdom had lost the war, many of them settled in Canada, mostly in Nova Scotia, where Guy Carleton arranged for their settlement. But some of theses people fled to Quebec. Many more arrived in the possession of the Loyalists, as slaves belonging to Loyalists were not allowed to leave them.

The majority of slave owners, however, were French Canadians, - more than 85% according to a census of those times. Some notable Anglophones, such as Chief Justice William Smith, Henry Caldwell or George Allsop, owned several slaves.

There was another difference: the French preferred Panis or First Nations slaves, who were cheaper, while the British owned black slaves, who were considered stronger, lived longer and were most skilled.

Prices were dependant as well over slave’s reputation, which was quickly known in a small community like Quebec. A runaway and captured slave was obviously a bad man who didn’t cost much because of his lack of discipline and loyalty. Why does he want to be free if his master feeds him well, anyway? Indeed, something is wrong with this slave.

It wasn’t just notables who bought slaves in Canada. Innkeepers such as Miles Prentice owned slaves who milked his cows, made the butter and waited at tables. Bakers and butchers owned slaves too, including George Hipps, the man who commissioned the statue of General Wolfe in front of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec. Slaves operated the printing presses of Quebec’s first newspaper Quebec Gazette.

Finally, it was the Loyalists who had fled the United States who ended slavery in Canada. Not because of their moral or Christian convictions, but because they associated it with the new American Republic they hated. Sir James Monk, Chief Justice of Montreal and member of both the Executive and Legislative Councils declared in 1793 that slavery was unsupported by law in the province of Quebec, and warned that his judgements would reflect the fact. The authorities however stopped prosecuting the slaves from deserting.

However, in 1799 Joseph Papineau presented to the Assembly a petition signed by Montreal slave owners for upholding legal recognition of slavery. The bill was defeated, as were several more like it.

Curiously enough, the Quebec Gazette began publishing antislavery poetry and stories in the 1790ies – the same paper which printing presses were operated with the help of the slave labour. But the last time the news-paper advertised a slave for sale was in 1798.

Officially, slavery only ended when Britain abolished it in 1834.

Finally, we must admit than in contrast with their former patriots, Loyalists’ slaves were in somewhat “better situation”. Indeed, they were baptized, given some education, and their families were kept together.

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