Black people have lived in what is now Canada since the 1600s. The earliest Black inhabitants were enslaved. By 1759, when British forces conquered New France, over 1,000 enslaved people of African origin had been brought to what is now Canada. Following the American Revolution (1775–83), white Loyalists fled the United States and settled in the Atlantic provinces and what would become Lower Canada [Quebec] and Upper Canada [Ontario]. They brought about 2,000 enslaved Black people with them. At the same time, approximately 3,500 free Black persons emigrated from the US and settled in what became Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. They had won their freedom due to their support for Britain during the American Revolution. (See Black Loyalists in British North America.)
Enslaved and free Black persons also fought on the British side in the War of 1812. (See The Coloured Corps: Black Canadians and the War of 1812 and Richard Pierpoint.) Between 1813 and 1816, over 2,000 Black refugees fled from the United States and eventually settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. There they faced hostility, segregation and low-paying jobs. In 1792, almost 1,200 Black Loyalists sailed from Halifax to West Africa, where they founded the new settlement of Freetown in Sierra Leone. (See also The Arrival of Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia.)
In 1793, Upper Canada passed legislation that limited and gradually abolished slavery. The Act prohibited the importation of enslaved persons into the province. Enslavement was abolished in most British colonies, including Canada, in 1834.
In 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which stated that refugees from enslavement living in the Northern states could be returned to enslavement in the South once captured. Between 1850 and 1860, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 African Americans settled in Canada. Some fled on their own, while others travelled with help from the Underground Railroad. Most settled in Upper Canada. With the end of slavery in 1865, many of them returned to the US to rejoin their families.
Despite the end of enslavement, Black Americans faced continuing legal, social and economic inequalities in the United States. This led some to migrate to Canada in search of a better life. In the west, about 800 free Black people emigrated from California to Vancouver Island in 1858–60. A group of about 1,000 Black people moved from Oklahoma to the prairies, particularly Alberta, in 1909–11. However, Black people also faced discrimination in Canada in housing, employment and access to public services. Many restaurants, hotels, and theatres refused to admit or serve Black Canadians. (See also Racial Segregation of Black People in Canada.) In 1910, Canada passed immigration legislation that extended the government’s powers to prohibit and deport immigrants. This included anyone considered “unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.”(See also Order-in-Council P.C. 1911-1324 — the Proposed Ban on Black Immigration to Canada.) For the first half of the 20th century, therefore, few Black people emigrated to Canada.