From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/African Canadians/Ames W. St. G. Walker

Africans accompanied many of the earliest European voyagers to the Americas, both as servants and as crew members. Among them was Mathieu de Coste (or da Costa), who served the governor of Acadia in 1608 as interpreter to the Micmacs. Apparently he had learned Micmac, or possibly some other native American language, while travelling with the Portuguese. De Coste is the first African in Canada whose name was recorded, but there was at least one other who died of scurvy at Port Royal in 1606, and a legend persists that one of Jacques Cartier’s crew members came originally from Africa. The first person recorded as coming directly from Africa, and the first African slave known in Canada, was a child brought to Quebec in 1628 by the English invader David Kirke and sold to a local resident. A native of Madagascar (or possibly of the Guinea Coast), the young slave was baptized in May 1633 as Olivier Le Jeune. He worked as a household servant until his death in 1654 when he was in his early thirties. The parish register lists him as “domestique” (domestic servant), but this need not imply that he was free for the word “esclave” (slave) was seldom used in official documents until 1709 when the colonial authorities issued an ordinance declaring slavery to be legal in New France. In fact, the new law merely sanctioned an established practice, since there were already African and Indian slaves in the colony. The most recent analysis documents a total of 1,400 African and 2,692 Indian slaves in New France before the conquest of 1760. Although the colony’s governor in 1688 sought permission to establish a trade in African slaves, there was never any direct importation from Africa; most of the Africans came via the French West Indies or the British colonies in North America, and 137 were born into Canadian slavery. Among the imported slaves, 60 percent were male and 40 percent female, and almost all of them were located in urban centres as domestic servants.

There were slaves in Nova Scotia as well – 104 were listed in a census of 1767 – and with the arrival of the Loyalists in 1783 their numbers increased dramatically. White Loyalists brought approximately 2,000 slaves with them as they fled from the victorious Americans; about 1,200 were relocated to the Maritimes, 300 to Lower Canada, and 500 to Upper Canada (Ontario). Men outnumbered women by a ratio of about three to one, reflecting the tendency of Loyalist masters to keep the slaves with the highest monetary value. Males were valued for their physical strength and were also more likely than females to have acquired valuable skills. Common field hands were generally not brought to Canada.

Numerically and historically more significant than the Loyalist-owned slaves were about 3,500 free black Loyalists who migrated to Canada at the same time. During the American Revolution British commanders had promised freedom and equality to slaves who ran away from American masters and aligned themselves with the Loyalist cause. Thousands of slaves responded to this invitation, in the hope that a British victory would spell an end to slavery and racial inequality in the colonies. Some of them fought in white regiments while others enrolled in an all-black corps known as the Black Pioneers. Those with specialized skills frequently applied them on behalf of the British as blacksmiths, carpenters, cooks, dressmakers, and teamsters; others laboured on defensive fortifications, washed laundry, or acted as personal servants. Despite their best efforts, the Revolutionary War resulted in American independence and Britain was required to evacuate them, for it was not possible for former slaves to remain safely in the new republic. The British commitment to black freedom was more apparent than real, however; many of the black Loyalists were simply left behind to be recaptured by former owners, and others were illegally kept as slaves by white Loyalists. Some were carried to safety in the West Indies, Bermuda, or England, and the largest number came to Canada. One document describing 3,000 individual black Loyalists leaving New York for the Maritimes lists 1,336 men, 914 women, and 750 children. These figures show a considerably higher proportion of women among the free blacks than among the slaves. About four-fifths of the total had been born in the American colonies and most came from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Maryland. The adults are typically described as healthy, in their prime years, travelling in families and possessing some occupational skills.

The black Loyalists had been attracted to the British by the expectation that they would be accorded completely equal treatment with their white counterparts. This turned out not to be true: their civil rights were curtailed and there were many restrictions imposed on them by a white majority that considered them more suitable for slavery than for equality. Above all, the black Loyalists failed to receive adequate land grants and so remained dependent upon white employers. After several petitions seeking land and equality were ignored by local officials, they decided to present their grievances directly to the British government. In 1790 they sent Thomas Peters, a former sergeant in the Black Pioneers, to London bearing a description of unfulfilled promises in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In London, Peters met the directors of the Sierra Leone Company, which had established a colony for freed slaves on the coast of West Africa. When Peters returned to North America in 1791 he bore an offer from the company to receive the black Loyalists in their African colony, as well as a government promise to pay the expenses of their migration. With the company’s white agent, John Clarkson, Peters carried the message of free land and equal opportunity in Sierra Leone to most of the black Loyalist settlements in the Maritimes and recruited almost 1,200 persons willing to move to Africa. The exodus took place in January 1792 and resulted in the foundation of Freetown, capital of the colony and later of the independent African state of Sierra Leone.

White Loyalists had done their best to impede the migration to Sierra Leone, for black labour was vital to pioneer enterprise in the Maritimes. There was therefore a readiness to welcome a group of almost 600 black people from Jamaica who arrived in Halifax in July 1796. They were known as “Maroons,” a name derived from the Spanish-American term for “runaway slave.” For generations, Jamaican slaves had been escaping to the hills where they established independent communities. Aided by the wilderness landscape, the Maroons resisted several full-scale expeditions sent out to re-enslave them, but during one of these military encounters in 1795 they were tricked into laying down their arms and were imprisoned aboard three ships in Kingston harbour. They were then deported en masse to Halifax. In Nova Scotia they made themselves useful as labourers reinforcing the Halifax citadel, but they were never happy and kept insisting on removal to some warmer climate. Eventually, contrary to the wishes of the Nova Scotian government, the Maroons were shipped to Sierra Leone in August 1800. They arrived in Freetown in the midst of an armed rebellion by the black Loyalists who found that their Sierra Leone Company government had not fulfilled the promise of free land and full equality. Ironically, the Maroons were enlisted on the government side and were instrumental in squashing the black Loyalists’ attempt to establish an independent black state in Sierra Leone.

Since the Maroons had been kept more or less segregated in Nova Scotia, their presence had not materially affected the black Loyalists who remained in the Maritimes. Of greater lasting importance was the arrival of a new group of blacks, the refugees of the War of 1812. The reputation acquired by the British during the American Revolution, as champions of black freedom and equality, still survived among American slaves. During this new war between America and Britain, therefore, thousands of slaves ran away and attached themselves to the British armies. In April 1814 Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, recognizing a fait accompli, issued a proclamation inviting Americans to become British subjects; as such, the proclamation promised, they would be sent as “Free Settlers” to British colonies. Slaves were not mentioned specifically in Cochrane’s proclamation, but his obvious intention was to give legal status to the runaway slaves and it was interpreted that way by both black and white Americans. Even before Cochrane’s proclamation black refugees were being taken to Nova Scotia. Several had landed as early as September 1813 and been cordially received by a province suffering a wartime labour shortage. By the end of the war about 2,000 refugees had been settled in the Maritimes, over 1,500 in Nova Scotia, and the rest in New Brunswick. As their numbers increased, and as a post-war depression eroded the demand for labour, the attitude of the white public and government grew less welcoming. In 1815 the Nova Scotia assembly tried to ban all further black immigration, though in 1812 they had called for more, and suggestions were made to transport all the refugees to Sierra Leone or the West Indies. Trinidad, in particular, was experiencing a labour shortage following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and, with Nova Scotia government encouragement, Trinidad sought to recruit migrants in the refugee settlements. In January 1821 one group of ninety-five refugees did sail for Trinidad, but, despite repeated efforts over the next two decades, no more could be induced to leave voluntarily and the British government would not countenance a forced removal.

Black migration to Canada between 1628 and 1815 reached a total of approximately 8,500 people, consisting of approximately 3,000 slaves, 3,500 black Loyalists, and 2,000 black refugees. About 95 percent of them lived in the Maritimes and Quebec. There was also a small number of individual runaway American slaves who, beginning in the 1790s, had migrated chiefly to Upper Canada. In 1793 an act of the Upper Canada legislature provided for the gradual abolition of slavery in the province. Although existing slaves were not liberated, their children born after 9 July 1793 would eventually be free. Also in the act was a provision that any slave who came into the province – whether brought by a master or arriving independently – would be immediately free. That same year the American Congress passed its first Fugitive Slave Act, which provided for the reclamation of slaves who fled to free states within the American union. Upper Canada thus became a legal haven for runaway slaves who could not remain with security in the United States. The existence of a British refuge for slaves was advertised by the War of 1812 and the Cochrane proclamation, by visiting American abolitionists who wrote descriptions of free black settlements north of the border, and, ironically, by American government attempts to extradite fugitives who had fled to Upper Canada. By 1830, when the term “Underground Railroad” was coined, hundreds of slaves and free African Americans were crossing the border each year. Their numbers would multiply manyfold before the Civil War ended American slavery.

The majority of black fugitives coming into Canada were fleeing directly from slavery. An analysis of published interviews and fugitive slave narratives indicates that most of them came from border slave states such as Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky, about three-quarters of them were male, and most of the females came with a husband and/or other family members. Given the rigours of clandestine travel, the dangers of pursuit by armed posses and bloodhounds, and the threat of betrayal by any passing stranger, it required superb fitness and outstanding courage to escape successfully. The Underground Railroad was a series of routes used by fugitives as they passed through the northern states. On some of those routes sympathetic whites or free blacks offered secret transportation assistance, on others the assistance provided was a secure hiding-place and food for a few days, but the majority were simply secret trails where nature provided the security for the fleeing slave. The legendary “stations,” “conductors,” and “telegraph signals,” while they did have a basis in fact, affected only a tiny percentage of the fugitives who reached Canada.

There were other fugitives who were already free and were fleeing not from slavery but from racial oppression and mob violence in the American north. Their numbers increased substantially when, in 1850, the American Congress placated the slaveholding south by implementing a much more vigorous Fugitive Slave Act. Slaves who had escaped to the north years before suddenly became vulnerable to recapture, and even the free-born felt insecure. The flow kept up throughout the decade of the 1850s. Estimates of total numbers are varied and contradictory, for the official census is unreliable and border crossings were not recorded. The Anti-Slavery Society of Canada thought that there were 60,000 blacks in Upper Canada by 1860, of slave and free origin, while other estimates range from as low as 20,000 to as high as 75,000. Most modern researchers put the total between 30,000 and 40,000. Much smaller numbers reached the Maritimes and Lower Canada (Quebec), primarily because the major escape routes passed through Pennsylvania and Ohio towards the border at Niagara Falls and Detroit. During the American Civil War many African Canadians returned to fight in the Union army, and this reverse flow continued well after the conflict’s end as fugitives sought to rejoin family and friends left in slavery or grasped the opportunities offered by the post-war Reconstruction era.

One interesting group of free African Americans migrated from California to Vancouver Island between 1858 and 1860, numbering about 800 people. During the 1850s California brought in oppressive legislation by which blacks were excluded from state schools and barred from giving evidence against whites in court, and attempts were made to require them to be registered and to prevent further black immigration into the state. The precipitating event behind the migration to Vancouver Island was the arrest and trial of a fugitive slave in 1858. A meeting held in San Francisco decided to send a delegation to Victoria to explore the possibility of a mass relocation. Assured of a favourable reception, the first families shipped for Victoria in the spring of 1858. Like their Upper Canadian counterparts, many of them returned to the United States once slavery was abolished and the racial climate seemed to improve.

The African-Canadian movement to the United States continued even after the promise of Reconstruction proved to be false. The officially recorded population of blacks in Ontario, for example, declined by one-half between 1871 and 1911, and in New Brunswick it fell by one-third in the same period. Nova Scotia’s decline was less precipitous but was especially marked during the 1880s and 1890s. This was not simply a case of African Americans returning home, but of the Canadian-born moving to the cities of the American north in search of educational, cultural, and employment opportunities. The result was a net loss of black citizens in post-confederation Canada, though some black Americans did continue to migrate northwards. Prominent among them, beginning in the 1880s, were porters seeking employment on the Canadian railroads. Initially a community of temporary male sojourners, by the turn of the century they were settling permanently with their families in the rail centres of Canada, especially Montreal. Besides the porters, experienced African-American workers were recruited in 1901–02 to help establish the blast furnaces in Sydney, Nova Scotia. But the largest group of black immigrants between confederation and World War I consisted of farmers moving to the prairies.

There had been blacks in the Canadian west earlier – fur traders, cowboys, broncobusters – but in 1901 they numbered fewer than 100 individuals, mostly male. The new migrants, who arrived in family groupings, had their immediate origin chiefly in Oklahoma. Until 1908 Oklahoma was part of federally administered Indian Territory, but with the achievement of statehood that year there began the typical pattern of restrictive acts and personal violence: blacks were deprived of the vote, official segregation was imposed, and there were beatings and lynchings. Between 1909 and 1911 about 1,500 black settlers moved into Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and especially Alberta, creating several distinct black settlements across the prairies. The Oklahoma example prompted other African Americans to migrate as well, particularly western farmers but including some from Chicago and other cities.

The prospect of a mass migration of black settlers provoked a hostile response from whites. Public petitions and municipal resolutions from all three western provinces urged Ottawa to ban further black immigrants and to segregate those already there. The Liberal government prepared an order-in-council in 1911 to prohibit black immigration for one year, but fear that relations with the United States could be damaged, and that African-Canadian voters in Ontario and the Maritimes could be alienated, apparently prevented its implementation. Instead, less overt measures were adopted: agents were sent into the American south to discourage black migrants; medical, character, and financial examinations were rigorously applied at border points, with rewards for officials who disqualified blacks; and American railroads were asked to deny blacks passage to Canada. Continued by the Conservatives after their 1911 election victory, this campaign had effectively stopped most African-American immigration by 1912. It was conducted under the authority of the Immigration Act of 1910, which enabled the government to prohibit “immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.” Those “races” supposed to be genetically incapable of assimilation, especially Asians and Africans, were to be denied admission to Canada. For the next half-century very few persons of African origin would be admitted. Even when immigration regulations generally were liberalized after World War II, restrictions against African peoples were maintained. The Immigration Act of 1952 amended the prohibitory grounds from “race” to “ethnic group” but no practical change was effected; in 1955 the Supreme Court of Canada interpreted the two terms to mean the same thing and validated exclusion of prospective immigrants because of their “race.”

Black West Indians were affected by these regulations just as much as African Americans. During the nineteenth century there had been a small movement of migrants from the British Caribbean into Canada, often sailors who would terminate a voyage in a Canadian port and decide to stay. At mid-century there were several dozen such people in Halifax and Victoria, and somewhat fewer in Toronto, mostly males who married into local black families. Numbers gradually increased when workers were brought from Barbados to the coal mines of Sydney, Nova Scotia, at the end of the century. A scheme to recruit female domestics in Guadaloupe in 1910–11 was terminated in the glare of the Oklahoma controversy after only about 100 women landed in Montreal. Nevertheless, more West Indians, including skilled workers, arrived during World War I to work in the mines and furnaces of Sydney. Many of these successful immigrants were able to send for their families, but, although they made a definite demographic imprint on Cape Breton, their numbers were not significant in national terms. According to official records, between 1900 and 1955 there was an annual average of fewer than seventy “Negro” immigrants from overseas – that is, from elsewhere than the United States – with males moderately outnumbering females. Most of these came from the British West Indies and a few from Africa, often including students who took degrees in Canada and then opted to stay. The first significant change occurred in 1955, with the inauguration of the West Indian Domestic Scheme. To be eligible an applicant had to be a single female aged between eighteen and thirty-five and in good health. After working as a domestic for at least one year, a woman would be granted landed immigrant status. At first limited to 100 women annually from Jamaica and Barbados, the scheme expanded both in numbers and in the islands of recruitment. By 1965 a total of 2,690 West Indian women had been admitted under the scheme.

An entirely new era was launched with immigration reforms beginning in 1962, when education and skills became the main conditions of admissibility and “race” or ethnic origin were made largely irrelevant. Between 1961 and 1966 over 12,000 West Indians migrated to Canada, a number greater than the entire West Indian population recorded in the 1961 census. In 1967 the last racially discriminatory regulations were eliminated and a “points system” was introduced to rationalize the skill-orientation of admission policy. That same year the first immigration offices were opened in the Caribbean region, in Jamaica and Trinidad, and later in Barbados, Guyana, and Haiti. West Indian immigrant numbers doubled from 1966 to 1967 and tripled again by the mid1970s. In rank order the West Indies jumped to third place as a source of Canadian immigration. From 0.69 percent of all immigrants in the 1950s, West Indians increased to 3.3 percent in the 1960s and 11 percent in the 1970s; though the figure would slip to 9.2 percent in the 1980s, the Caribbean region including Guyana remained a leading supplier of Canadian immigrants. Annual averages by decade were 1,068 in the 1950s, 4,603 in the 1960s, 15,922 in the peak years of the 1970s, and 11,560 in the 1980s. Numbers have been increasing again in the early 1990s, with an annual average of 15,259. By the 1991 census there were 298,580 Caribbean-born people residing in Canada, a 22 percent increase over the 1986 census, with the greatest change in the number of Guyanese (up 30 percent to 66,060).

Immigration statistics do not specify the colour of an immigrant, but surveys and interviews suggest that over 80 percent of Caribbean immigrants are of African or partially African descent; most of the remainder are of East Indian ancestry, though there are numbers whose families first came from China or Europe. This imprecision in ultimate origin applies to immigrants from Africa as well. The vast majority of immigrants from the Republic of South Africa, for example, are of European origin, and until the early 1980s South Africa sent the largest number of immigrants from the African continent. The Arab countries of North Africa, similarly, have supplied more Canadian immigrants than the black-majority countries south of the Sahara.

Nor is country of origin itself a reliable guide, for Canada has received thousands of Asian-descended people from East Africa, over 7,000 from Uganda alone following their expulsion in 1972, and many of the individuals leaving Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe at the time of independence were European settlers. Still, there is evidence of a dramatic increase in the immigration of black Africans in recent years. In the late 1970s South Africa accounted for 40 percent of Canada’s immigrants from Africa; in the early 1990s the figure had declined to 6 percent. In the same period Somalia moved from less than 0.1 to 20 percent and Ethiopia from 1.5 to 15 percent. Other black-majority countries have sent increasing numbers as well, including Ghana, Nigeria, and Zambia. In 1991 Somalia sent the largest number of African immigrants, 3,221, followed by Ethiopia at 2,424 and Ghana at 1,118. Comparing the 1986 and 1991 census figures, the African-born population in Canada, not including the Arab north and the Republic of South Africa, expanded from 48,535 to 76,260, a change of 57 percent in just five years.