Slavery in Indigenous Communities Prior to Colonization

Prior to European contact, it was common for Indigenous peoples to enslave those captured in war. In general, most Indigenous peoples primarily distinguished between those who were kin and those who were outsiders — either trade allies or enemies who were legitimate captives in warfare. Indigenous peoples enslaved those they captured in war for a number of reasons. First of all, since most Indigenous nations had complex codes of behaviour that allowed them to maintain societies without state structures or prison systems, the only way to deal with war captives was either to kill them, enslave them or adopt them ritually and formally into their nations. Some slaves were treated cruelly, while others became family members. For some nations, individuals kept captive men as slaves because of the prestige it granted them as warriors, while in others, male captives were tortured as a ritual means of exorcising “the other” (i.e., outsiders) from the society, while female captives were enslaved. Ritual adoption was a practice that frequently took place as a means of replacing individuals lost in battle and mourned. Finally, in the wars that took place in Canada between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and many of the Indigenous allies of the French (see Iroquois Wars), Haudenosaunee clan mothers sent out warriors to capture enemies to be integrated into their society, and thereby replace those lost in war. By the 1660s, more than 60 per cent of people in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy were reportedly war captives who had been adopted into lineages and incorporated into their nations.

Slavery of Indigenous peoples during the Age of Exploration

During the 1400s and 1500s, European explorers were known to capture Indigenous peoples they saw during their North American travels and take them back to Europe to work as slaves or to be exhibited as “exotic” peoples of the New World. In 1493, Christopher Columbus shipped Indigenous people from the present-day Bahamas to Spain, helping him secure royal support for his expeditions. The Spanish also participated in the Indigenous slave trade, capturing and enslaving peoples from present-day South and Central America. From Newfoundland, it is believed that some of the Beothuk people were brought as captives to Lisbon, Portugal, around 1500. Explorer Jacques Cartier abducted Indigenous people and brought them back to France with him, including two of Haudenosaunee chief Donnacona’s sons in 1534–35. Although Cartier returned with them the following year, he then abducted Donnacona himself, the two sons and seven other Haudenosaunee people in 1536. Donnacona and his people never made it back to North America, even though Cartier had so promised them — because Cartier could not afford the trip back until 1541, when all of them had died except perhaps one girl whose destiny is unknown.

Indigenous Slave Trade in Britain’s Southern Colonies

The move from enslaving captives to trading war captives to Europeans for trade goods on a large scale in North America began in South Carolina in the 1600s. Land-hungry and cash-poor settlers first began to purchase Indigenous captives from certain allied Indigenous nations in exchange for trade goods. When this system did not bring enough slaves for the settlers’ needs, they supported slave raids and deliberately instigated wars between Indigenous peoples (such as between the Chickasaw and Choctaw) to acquire more war captives. At times, Indigenous nations participated in the slave trade because they knew that if they resisted, they too could become targets. The Westo, for example, were once powerful slavers for the British until they became too powerful — and therefore threatening — and were consequently hunted down by new Indigenous allies of the British and essentially wiped out; survivors were generally either enslaved or killed. The result of these intertribal wars and slave raids was chaos in the southern colonies, as entire Indigenous nations — such as the Timucua — were devastated by violence and sold into slavery.

Indigenous enslavement was central to the survival of England’s southern colonies; all relied almost entirely on Indigenous slaves initially, for personal service and to break the land for plantations. African slaves were less popular during this time because they were more expensive. It was cheaper to buy (or ultimately, to capture) Indigenous people. These slaves were exported and traded north to New England and Canada or south to South America in exchange for other Indigenous slaves. In these cases, it was very difficult, if not impossible, for slaves to escape from their captors because they were so far away from their homelands. An estimated 50,000 Indigenous slaves from the present-day southern United States were traded or captured in this way in approximately 45 years. Indigenous slaves were also shipped to the West Indies to trade for African slaves (see Black Enslavement in Canada).

The Indigenous slave trade ended after the Yamasee War of 1715–17, when Indigenous nations in Britain’s southern colonies went to war against the British to stop the slave trade and European expansion into their territories. From that point, the southern colonies began relying on African slaves. However, Indigenous peoples continued to be enslaved alongside African people until slavery was abolished.

Indigenous Slave Trade in New France

Small numbers of Indigenous and even fewer Black slaves were held in most regions of New France outside of the French Canadian colony (the exception being Louisiana, where the dominance of a plantation economy meant that thousands of Black slaves and some Indigenous slaves were also held). In Canada, the ratio of Indigenous to Black slaves was 2:1. The French colonists there received permission from Louis XIV to import African slaves in 1689. However, since New France relied on Indigenous allies for survival, the king was reluctant to rule on the legality of Indigenous enslavement. After repeatedly petitioning the king for clarification, Intendant Jacques Raudot passed a colonial law in 1709 — Ordinance Rendered on the Subject of the Negroes and the Indians called Panis — that legitimized slavery in New France. The ordinance stipulated that both Indigenous and Black slaves brought to the colony would be considered the possession of those who purchased them.

Certain norms were applied to slaves in French Canada that were established by Louis XIV’s Code Noir (1685). This law defined the conditions of slavery in French colonies in the Caribbean; a later edition of the Code Noir was issued for Louisiana. In particular, the stipulation that the child of a slave mother is a slave was applied in French Canada, even though the Code Noir was never officially adopted in the colony.

After 1709, increasing numbers of Indigenous slaves arrived and a few African people were brought in, primarily owned by the colony’s governors. Between 1689 and 1713, at least 145 Indigenous slaves and 13 African slaves were brought to the colony.

When the supply of Indigenous slaves from South Carolina dried up following the Yamasee War, the French Canadian colony obtained the slaves it needed from fur traders who brought Indigenous slaves from the western region of the continent. Some historians identified the primary slaves in Canada as the Pawnees, for whom the generic name Panis began to be used for most Indigenous slaves. However, the Pawnees may have actually been among the most important early suppliers of Indigenous slaves to the colonists. Ultimately, slaves were obtained from all over the western territories where New France traded.

Pawnee traditional territory.
(courtesy Victor Temprano/

In 1747, the colony proposed to France that they trade Indigenous slaves for African people, as Louisiana was attempting, trading two Indigenous slaves for in return for one African slave. However, France objected because New France was entirely dependent on relationships with Indigenous allies, and the trade could potentially jeopardize these relationships. While Indigenous slaves were only supposed to be enslaved in the colony itself, in practice, Indigenous slaves stayed slaves wherever they were brought by their owners, and increasing numbers were traded from New France to the Caribbean by their owners.

Slavery of Indigenous People in British North America

After the Conquest of 1760, Article 47 of the Articles of Capitulation (see Capitulation of Montréal 1760) extended slavery as practiced under the French regime to the British. The records indicate that in the Québec administrative region — including areas that were at times under its jurisdiction, such as Acadia, the Great Lakes region, Lake Champlain, and the Sainte-Famille mission in present-day Illinois — 4,185 slaves were owned between the mid-17th century and the year 1834, when slavery was abolished. Of that number, 2,683 were Indigenous people, 1,443 were Black people and 59 were of unknown origin. Although the numbers were relatively small as compared to slavery in New England, this represented a sizeable percentage of the colony’s population. These slaves were owned by both the French and the British at all levels of society, including religious institutions and hospitals; by far the majority of slaves were owned in urban centres, primarily in Québec and Montréal.

After 1750, the number of Indigenous slaves brought into French Canada began to decline as the fur trade moved north and west. However, by 1784, as existing slaves died and new ones became difficult to acquire, at least 304 slaves remained in Canada. In Nova Scotia, after the exile of the Acadians, New Englanders were invited in to further displace the Mi’kmaq. They brought their Black slaves with them, so that by 1776 there were approximately 500 Black slaves in Nova Scotia. The number of Black slaves increased significantly after 1783, when tens of thousands of Loyalists migrated to Canada, bringing a further 1,000 Black slaves to Nova Scotia.

In Upper Canada, both Indigenous and Black slavery existed; however, the numbers of Indigenous slaves had begun to decline there as well. Upper Canada banned the importation of African slaves in 1793 with the Act Against Slavery. Indigenous and Black slaves of Upper Canada remained in slavery after this edict, however; the children of all slave women would now be freed at the age of 25. Lower Canada never abolished the slave trade; however, as courts increasingly refused to recognize slavery, slaves escaped and their numbers dwindled. By 1821, the last remaining slave in Lower Canada, an Indigenous woman, was donated to a Montréal hospital. When slavery was abolished in British colonies in 1834, Black slaves far outnumbered Indigenous slaves.

Life in Slavery

While little is known about the lives and experiences of individual slaves, in general, Indigenous slaves in Canada were used primarily as manual labourers and domestic servants. Most were also young and female; the average age of Indigenous slaves in Canada was 14 years old and 57 per cent were girls or young women. There appears to have been relatively little intergenerational slavery (as in the southern colonies), probably because of the lack of a plantation economy. Therefore, when supplies died out, so did the numbers of slaves. Indeed, many slaves in Canada died young.

Indigenous slaves were treated similarly to immigrant workers, in that 60.6 per cent of slaves worked in urban centres and had a better quality of life than their counterparts in the southern colonies. That being said, being ripped away from their homes, families and communities and made to work in various jobs brought physical, psychological and emotional turmoil to many Indigenous slaves.

Not much is known about what happened to slaves after they were freed. Some of those who worked in a trade during enslavement continued that line of work. Others travelled from place to place in search of work and a home. The less fortunate became homeless and were forced to beg or steal to survive.


Although the dominant mode of slavery for the final 40 years of slavery in Canada was African (as American settlers brought their African slaves with them into the present-day Maritimes, Ontario and Québec after 1783), Indigenous slaves made up two-thirds of the slaves in Canada over the course of about 150 years. Overwhelmingly, for most of Canada’s history, the majority of slaves were Indigenous. However, while both histories are significant, in Canada, the story of Indigenous enslavement has been largely overprinted by that of Black slavery, since enslavement of Black peoples within plantation slavery continued across the Americas long after the abolition of slavery in Canada.