Black people have lived in Canada since the beginnings of transatlantic settlement. Although historically very few have arrived directly from their ancestral homeland in the continent of Africa, the term "African Canadian" became increasingly popular in the 1990s to identify all descendants of Africa regardless of their place of birth.
For more detailed articles on the history of Black Canadians, please see our articles on Black History in Canada until 1900, Black History in Canada: 1900-1960 and Black History in Canada: 1960 to Present.
Black people have lived in Canada since the beginnings of transatlantic settlement. Although historically very few have arrived directly from their ancestral homeland in the continent of Africa, the term "African Canadian " became increasingly popular in the 1990s to identify all descendants of Africa regardless of their place of birth. The earliest arrivals were slaves brought from New England or the West Indies. Between 1763 and 1865 most blacks migrating to Canada were fleeing slavery in the US. The US remained the main source of new black immigrants until the 1960s, when large numbers of West Indians began arriving. Today African Canadians constitute about 2% of the Canadian population.
Olivier Le Jeune is the first slave to have been transported directly from Africa to Canada. He was sold in 1629 in Québec, but apparently died a free man. From then until the British Conquest (1759-60) approximately 1000 black people brought from New England or the West Indies were enslaved in New France. Local records indicate that by 1759 there had been a cumulative total of 3604 slaves in New France, including 1132 of African origin. Most of the slaves lived in or near Montréal. Slavery, which prospered in economies dependent upon one crop, mass production and gang labour, did not develop strongly among these colonists, but under British rule it was given new life.
The Loyalists brought about 2000 black slaves with them into British North America, but 3500 free blacks, who had won their freedom through allegiance to Britain, emigrated at the same time, settling in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Within 2 decades, slavery had virtually disappeared among the Loyalists.
In 1793 Upper Canada became the only colony to legislate for the abolition (though gradual) of slavery. With no prospect of new imports, slavery declined steadily. By 1800 courts in other parts of British North America had effectively limited the expansion of slavery, though as late as 1816 an advertisement for a runaway slave appeared in the Royal Gazette. On 28 August 1833 the British Parliament passed a law abolishing slavery in all British North American colonies; the law came into effect 1 August 1834.
Black migration to British North America in 1796 included a band of Jamaican Maroons, descendants of black slaves who had escaped from the Spanish and later the British rulers of Jamaica and who were feared and respected for their courage. Then, between 1813 and 1816, 2000 slaves who had sought refuge behind British lines during the War of 1812 were taken to Nova Scotia. The largest number of American blacks arrived in Canada independently, using a network of secret routes known as the Underground Railroad.
By the time of the American Civil War, it is estimated that around 30 000 fugitives had found their way to Canada. This included about 800 free African Americans who migrated from California to Vancouver Island in the late 1850s seeking to escape the racial discrimination that was imposed by law in their home state.
With the end of American slavery in 1865, many thousands of African Canadians returned to the US, although because of American legal inequalities small groups of black Americans continued to move into Canada. From Oklahoma more than 1000 blacks moved to the Canadian Prairies, particularly Alberta, 1909-11. The black population in Canada did not increase substantially, however, until the 1960s, when changes in the Immigration Act removed a bias against nonwhite immigrants and permitted large numbers of qualified West Indians and Africans to enter Canada. This major influx of black people has greatly outnumbered the original black population in every Canadian region except the Maritimes (between 1950 and 1995 there were about 300 000 immigrants from the West Indies and over 150 000 from Africa - including persons of Asian and European descent).
Most of the black Loyalists, Maroons and refugees in the Maritimes were located by government policy in segregated communities on the outskirts of larger white towns. Many of the slaves owned by white Loyalists were taken to the Eastern Townships of Québec. Halifax, Shelburne, Digby and Guysborough in Nova Scotia and Saint John and Fredericton in New Brunswick had all-black settlements in their immediate neighbourhoods. In Ontario the Underground Railroad fugitives also tended to concentrate in settlements, less as a consequence of government policy than for the sake of mutual support and protection against white Canadian prejudice and discrimination and American kidnappers.
Most of Ontario's black settlements were in and around Windsor, Chatham, London, St Catharines and Hamilton. Toronto had a black district, and there were smaller concentrations of blacks near Barrie, Owen Sound and Guelph. Saltspring Island and the city of Victoria were the main locations for black settlers in 19th-century British Columbia. Migrants to Alberta early in the 20th century established several rural settlements around Edmonton. Until recently, most of Canada's black population was relatively isolated not only from whites but from other black communities. The pattern began to break down in the 1930s and 1940s as rural blacks migrated to the cities in search of jobs. Many of the original black settlements were abandoned or considerably depopulated.
The new black migration from the West Indies and Africa has been overwhelmingly directed towards the cities. African Canadians are now among the most urbanized of all Canada's ethnic groups. White Canadian attitudes have been changing in the generation since World War II, and although urban blacks still face discrimination, the pressures for segregation no longer apply.
The black Loyalists, Maroons and refugees met with numerous obstacles in trying to establish themselves in the Maritimes. The small land grants they received could not permit self-sufficiency through agriculture. Forced to seek occasional labouring jobs in neighbouring white towns, the black pioneers were vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination in employment and wages. Throughout the Maritimes blacks received smaller allotments of farmland and lower wages than whites. Poverty was thus a basic component in the early black experience.
Partly as a result of poor conditions in their new country, substantial numbers of blacks left Nova Scotia and New Brunswick for Sierra Leone in West Africa. In 1792 almost 1200 black Loyalists sailed from Halifax to found the new settlement of Freetown. Their descendants can still be identified there today. Then in 1800 over 500 Maroons followed the same route to Sierra Leone. Their arrival coincided with a rebellion of the black Loyalist settlers against their British governors. By siding with the colonial authorities, the Maroons ensured the failure of the rebellion. In 1820 some 95 refugee blacks left Halifax for Trinidad.
Though encouraged to migrate by West Indian and Nova Scotian officials, and despite poor land, severe winters and the competition of abundant white labour, the vast majority of refugees were determined to survive in Canada. Most present-day blacks in the Maritimes are descendants of these people.
The fugitive blacks who had arrived in Ontario via the Underground Railroad typically arrived destitute, and without government land grants were usually forced to become labourers on the lands of others, although some farmed their own land successfully, and some worked for the Great Western Railway.
Many individual fugitives, particularly those who migrated to Victoria, BC, in the 1850s brought skills or savings which enabled them to establish small businesses. Many also worked on farms or in shops on the new wharf at Esquimalt, BC. Until well into the 20th century, however, most African Canadians were employed in the lower-paying service categories or as unskilled labour.
According to 1991 census figures, black Canadians still received lower average wages than white Canadians. Recent West Indian and African immigrants have generally possessed a high level of skills, education and experience, and are found in every occupational category.
Community and Cultural Life
In their concentrated settlements the early blacks had the opportunity to retain cultural characteristics and create a distinct community. Styles of worship, music and speech, family structures and group traditions developed in response to the conditions of life in Canada. The chief institutional support was the separate church, usually Baptist or Methodist (see Methodism), created when white congregations refused to admit blacks as equal members.
The churches' spiritual influence pervaded daily life and affected the vocabulary, routines and ambitions of their members. Inevitably, they assumed a major social and political role and the clergy became the natural community leaders. The many fraternal organizations, mutual-assistance bands, temperance societies and antislavery groups formed by 19th-century blacks were almost always associated with one of the churches. In the 20th century the churches led the movement for greater educational opportunity and for civil rights.
In slavery black women were forced to work to support themselves, and economic circumstances perpetuated this tradition in Canada. Black women have always played an important economic role in family life and have experienced considerable independence as a result. Raised in a communal fashion, frequently by their grandparents or older neighbours, black children developed family-like relationships throughout the local community. A strong sense of group identity and mutual reliance, combined with the unique identity provided by the churches, produced an intimate community life and a refuge against white discrimination.
A tradition of intense loyalty to Britain and Canada developed among blacks from the beginning of their settlement in Canada. The black Loyalists fought to maintain British rule in America, and their awareness that an American invasion could mean their re-enslavement prompted them to participate in Canada's military defence. Black militiamen fought against American troops in the War of 1812, were prominent in subduing the Rebellions of 1837 and later helped to repel the Fenian incursions.
For a period in the 1860s the largely self-financed Black Pioneer Rifle Corps was the only armed force protecting Vancouver Island, although it was later denied the opportunity to participate in the Vancouver Island Volunteer Rifle Corps. During WWI blacks were initially rejected by recruitment offices, but persistent volunteering finally resulted in the creation of a separate black corps, The Nova Scotia No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Urbanization and increasing secularization have changed the role of the church and the local community, and the new immigrants are bringing their own Caribbean and African heritages to Canada, though they too are adapting them to the conditions of Canadian life. There is no longer a single black Canadian tradition, but the historic values of a people who sought freedom in Canada continue to influence black institutions and attitudes today.
British charitable organizations sponsored schools in most of the Maritime black communities beginning in the 1780s and, during the 19th century, British and American societies established schools for blacks throughout Ontario. In addition the governments of both Nova Scotia and Ontario created legally segregated public schools. Although almost every black community had access to either a charity or a public school, funding was inadequate and education tended to be inferior. When combined with residential isolation and economic deprivation, poor schooling helped to perpetuate a situation of limited opportunity and restricted mobility. In 1965 the last segregated school in Ontario closed.
With urbanization black children were admitted into integrated city schools. Until recently the average black person had a lower educational level than the average white, but the new migration is changing this situation dramatically. Black immigrants have a higher standard of educational achievement, on average, than the overall Canadian population. In addition, special programs, such as the Transition Year Program at Dalhousie University, are correcting the long-standing heritage of educational disadvantage.
The law in Canada, with few major exceptions, has insisted on the legal equality of blacks. Until Confederation this meant English law, and black voters were inclined to support Conservative candidates committed to the preservation of British ties. Since Confederation blacks have been active in every political party and over the past 30 years have been elected as Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats.
Though blacks have never formed a large enough group to wield direct political influence, several individual blacks have made significant contributions to political affairs. There have been black municipal councillors and school trustees for more than a century, most notably Mifflin Gibbs, who sat on the Victoria City Council in the 1860s and was a delegate to the Yale Convention deliberating BC's entry into Confederation, and William Hubbard, who served as councillor, controller and acting mayor of Toronto 1894-1907.
Leonard Braithwaite was the first African Canadian in a provincial legislature when he was elected in Ontario in 1963, and Lincoln Alexander from Hamilton became the first black federal member in 1968. Emery Barnes and Rosemary Brown were both elected in the 1970s to the BC legislature. New honours were achieved in the 1980s when Lincoln Alexander became lieutenant-governor of Ontario, Alvin Curling joined the Ontario Cabinet, Anne Cools was appointed to the Senate and Howard McCurdy of Windsor, Ontario, was elected to the House of Commons. In 1990 Donald Oliver of Halifax joined the Senate and Zanana Akande became a member of the Ontario Cabinet, the first black woman to achieve Cabinet rank in Canada. In 1993 Wayne Adams entered the Nova Scotian Cabinet and in the federal election that year 3 black MPs were elected: Jean Augustine, Hedy Fry and Ovid Jackson. Hedy Fry, from Vancouver, was appointed to the Cabinet in 1996.
Historically the rural black community served to buffer the effects of discrimination and in its protective atmosphere a distinctive black identity evolved. The co-operative strength of community life enabled continual probings against racial limitations, but they were not successful in destroying the barriers entirely.
The diversified origin of today's black population makes a unified group identity less than apparent, yet whatever their background, African Canadians face a typical set of problems. Opinion surveys and provincial human-rights commission reports reveal that racism survives and that blacks still face discrimination in employment, accommodation and public services. This creates the basis of a common experience and encourages a common response. Fostered by black newspapers, magazines and community organizations, and enriched by greater numbers and cultural variety, a new and broader black community is being developed in the modern Canadian city.