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Arrival and Settlement

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

African Canadians participated in the original settlement of almost every region of Canada. Black slaves were present at the foundation of Montreal, Louisbourg, Halifax, and virtually all the Loyalist communities. In New France most were urban domestic servants: 46 percent lived in Montreal and 43 percent in Quebec or their environs. Elsewhere, especially during the Loyalist period, slaves were more likely to practise skilled trades, work as farm hands or labourers, and be located in rural areas or smaller centres, though many (especially females) were urban domestics as well.

The free black Loyalists were also pioneers, particularly throughout the Maritimes. Their success in putting down roots was remarkable, for less than one-third of their number in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick received any land at all and the farms they did get were considerably smaller in size and usually in less fertile or more remote regions than those of the white Loyalists. They were handicapped in another way, too. Imperial policy had established that free provisions were to be extended to Loyalists while they were preparing their farms for a harvest. Blacks generally failed to receive these provisions, however, and so even if they had land it was difficult for them to support their families while they cleared it and brought in a crop.

It was often the case that groups of Loyalists, sometimes members of an entire military unit, would be settled all together on their arrival in British North America. This principle was also applied to the blacks, so that when they did receive land it was usually in blocks where they were on their own, with few or no whites among them. As a consequence, separate black settlements were created in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, often on the fringes of white settlements. The largest separate black community was at Birchtown, Nova Scotia, with a population of more than 1,500. Others were at Brindley Town (near Digby, Nova Scotia), Preston (near Halifax), and Little Tracadie in what is now Guysborough County, Nova Scotia.

Following the exodus to Sierra Leone in 1792, those blacks who remained behind in Nova Scotia tended to migrate to larger settlements such as Halifax, where they could find employment as servants or apprentices or seek jobs individually on white-owned farms as sharecroppers or labourers. Most of the large and isolated concentrations of black people were broken up. When the Maroons had completed their work on the Halifax citadel in 1796, Nova Scotian officials chose to locate them in the neighbourhood of Halifax, convinced that a French attack on the city was imminent and that the Maroons would be useful as defenders. And so the Maroons were settled at Preston, recently vacated by black Loyalists, and there they were able to maintain their own social organization and way of life until they in turn departed for Sierra Leone. The black Loyalist remnant, meanwhile, began to experience an improvement in their economic position within a decade of the exodus. As indenture terms were fulfilled and as apprentices qualified in trades, they once again constituted an available labour reserve. By 1812 the lament was heard that there were not enough free blacks in Nova Scotia to perform all the available work, and wages rose accordingly. During the War of 1812 blacks volunteered for militia service and three separate black corps were formed, winning white approval for their readiness to defend the Empire. Though blacks were still a disadvantaged class, slavery and its repugnant racial distinctions were dying away, residential segregation was breaking down, and economic advance was visible.

After the war, conditions were different. Almost 1,000 black refugees were settled at Preston, about 500 more were placed at Hammond’s Plains, on the other side of Halifax, and during the summer of 1817 almost 400 went to Loch Lomond near Saint John. Smaller groups gathered on the outskirts of other Maritime centres. In all about 2,000 new blacks were located in the region, most in or close to Halifax. Though supplied with clothing, provisions, and farm implements, they were placed on farms which – at three or four hectares in size – were too small to sustain economic independence. At the same time, a post-war depression combined with the arrival of thousands of labourers from the British Isles meant that there were few jobs available for the blacks. To supplement their government rations, they cut the trees on their allotments for sale as firewood, and when that was gone they attempted to find work with neighbouring white farmers or in the city of Halifax. Since their lands had been given on licences of occupation, not freehold grants, they could not sell their farms to finance a move to a different location.

All blacks, both Loyalist and refugee, shared in this poverty, for there was no longer any valid role for them in the Maritime economic structure. Supported by sympathetic white neighbours, black leaders in Nova Scotia appealed to the government for relocation to more viable farms. In 1839 the British authorities finally agreed, but there was not enough Crown land available in large blocks to enable existing communities to be transplanted to new locations. Instead, individual families would have to occupy new farms scattered throughout the province. Without widespread enthusiasm from black leaders, who feared the destruction of local communities, the relocation plan was dropped.

Nevertheless, in a gesture towards black self-reliance, the legislature decided, in May 1842, to convert the tickets of location to freehold grants. This enabled those who chose to do so to sell their allotments and move elsewhere where prospects might be more favourable. One immediate result was a migration towards the larger population centres, especially Halifax and Saint John. In the former city, though they were not entirely ghettoized, about two-thirds of blacks lived in a single downtown ward. Just at the edge of town, migrants from Preston and Hammond’s Plains established the community of Campbell Road beginning in 1848. By the end of the century Campbell Road had become known as “Africville,” the name by which it would gain nationwide fame. And by that same time black Loyalists and refugees were coming together in shared settlements. Refugees joined the older Loyalist settlements in Guysborough and Annapolis regions, and Loyalists joined the refugee settlements in the Halifax region. Thus the descendants of Loyalists and refugees merged, along with those of people who had been enslaved in the province, creating a new black population that eventually lost its awareness of the particular origin of its ancestors.

The few black Loyalists who went to Upper Canada were not channelled into any particular settlements, but in the 1790s many of them established neighbouring farms. These centres of settlement, located mainly along the Detroit and Niagara frontiers, attracted some of the earliest fugitives entering Upper Canada. Runaway slaves entering through Niagara settled there or moved to nearby St Catharines or Hamilton; those crossing at Detroit settled in the regions of Windsor, Chatham, or London. From both directions fugitives moved to Toronto or the virgin lands south of Georgian Bay.

Many fugitives intended to support themselves by farming, but they faced considerable difficulties in doing so. Private land was beyond the purchasing ability of most former slaves and Crown land was often remote. Some blacks who did push into the wilderness but were unable to pay the Crown fees simply squatted on unoccupied land and proceeded to raise crops. When surveyors caught up with them the price assessed for the land was increased by the improvements the blacks themselves had made; unable to pay, many families were forced to vacate the farms they had created.

There were other threats to black security as well, including the possibility of being kidnapped back into American slavery. For slaveowners, every slave who reached freedom in Canada threatened the security of the entire slave system and offered an example to every other slave. They were therefore prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to retrieve fugitives in Canada. Besides hiring kidnappers, or occasionally pursuing fugitives themselves, owners sought to enlist the aid of the Upper Canadian government by filing formal extradition requests. Yet early demands for the return of slaves were routinely rejected on the ground that escape from slavery was not a crime in Upper Canada and fugitives were therefore not liable to criminal extradition.

In response, American owners began demanding the extradition of fugitives on criminal grounds such as theft. Only one such effort was successful, when Nelson Hackett was charged by his master with stealing a horse, a gold watch, and fur coat, and, for good measure, with raping a white woman. Although the latter charge was dropped when no evidence was offered, Governor Sir Charles Bagot ordered Hackett’s return to Arkansas as a common thief in 1842. This was clearly a test case on the part of the masters to prove that Canada was not a secure haven. Hackett’s owner spent far more than his sale price, and Canadian and British abolitionists’ offers to purchase him were rejected. Significantly, the alleged thief was not tried for theft on his return to Arkansas but was beaten and tortured as a runaway before crowds of slaves to discourage escape to Canada. There was a public outcry in Canada, Bagot was reprimanded by the British government, and eventually the case led to negotiations for a treaty of extradition with the Americans. When the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was concluded in 1843 robbery remained an extraditable offence, but horse theft in the course of escape from slavery did not. No fugitive was ever surrendered under the 1843 treaty, but the possibility of it happening kept the issue very much alive. In the most famous extradition case of all, the fugitive John Anderson was arrested in 1860 on a charge of murder. Though his first trial resulted in a ruling in favour of extradition, his second ended in his discharge on a technicality. The case had captured the imagination of the public, and when he was freed it was to the universal rejoicing of black and white Canadians.

Difficulties in obtaining land, a well-founded sense of insecurity, personal poverty, and general problems in adapting to life in a strange land prompted some Upper Canadian fugitives and their white sympathizers to propose the establishment of separate communities. These communal settlements were intended not as a permanent solution but as an intermediary step between slavery and freedom. Opponents within the fugitive population argued that, despite good intentions, the organized communities would promote segregation and also create an impression that African peoples were incapable of living in North America without white support. Both sides in the debate shared a commitment to equality and integration; the disagreement was over the particular means of achieving them. Beginning in 1829 four major communal experiments were initiated: Wilberforce, near London, led by Austin Steward; Dawn, at Dresden, led by Josiah Henson; Buxton, near Chatham, led by the Reverend William King; and the Refugee Home, in several different locations near Windsor, led by Henry and Mary Bibb. Their significance did not lie in the numbers of people who lived in them, for at their peak they probably contained no more than about three or four thousand people, but they did give those fugitives who participated an opportunity to become landowners, to gain an education, and to raise families and build communities sheltered from the many vicissitudes of mid-nineteenth-century racism.

On the west coast, many of the blacks who settled on Vancouver Island in the late 1850s had acquired skills and business experience in California and some brought capital to invest in new enterprises. At this point the Pacific Coast was in the midst of an economic boom, fuelled by the gold rush. Labour was in urgent demand, and the migrants found immediate employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. Most settled in Victoria, where they tended to live in the same neighbourhood; others settled at nearby Saanich, some penetrated as far as Nanaimo, and one group established a small farming community on Saltspring Island. Anxious to integrate as loyal subjects, the blacks deliberately declined to form separate churches or community associations. In 1859 many of the men on the island volunteered to serve in the fire brigade but were rebuffed. They thereupon decided to form a military group, for the colony was at that time undefended and some white Americans in the area were lobbying for annexation to the United States. Using money raised by the Committee of Coloured Ladies, they hired a drill sergeant and purchased uniforms. As a trained militia and with their own elected officers the corps became the Pioneer Rifles in April 1860. Known familiarly as the African Rifles, it remained for more than a year the only defence force on the island. Following the Civil War and the return of many migrants to the United States, some of the Vancouver Island blacks moved to the mainland and were among the early settlers of what would become the city of Vancouver.

Most of the thousand or more African-American migrants who arrived in Alberta between 1908 and 1912 settled in the Athabasca region north and west of Edmonton. All their settlements were isolated physically, and the soil was not the province’s best. The pioneers appear to have selected their remote locations deliberately, in order to avoid the racist hysteria which their arrival had evoked from the white majority. Although they were experienced farmers, crops and conditions were different from what they were used to, and the heavily forested land took years to clear by hand. In order to supplement their income, most adult males sought temporary waged employment and, with the men away so much of the time, primary responsibility for operating the farms fell frequently to the women. Railway construction offered an early opportunity for paid work, and later Edmonton was the source of seasonal jobs. As it became apparent that urban opportunities were greater than those on the farm, many families began moving permanently to Edmonton and a smaller number to Calgary, where a black district had already been established in the vicinity of the railway yards by porters on layover. The 1911 census showed a provincial total of 979 blacks, with 208 in Edmonton and 72 in Calgary; although the Alberta figure would remain almost constant, the urban proportion grew continually as the farms were abandoned over the next two or three decades. Only Amber Valley maintained its identity as an all-black community, with a population of about 350 in the 1930s.

Blacks in Saskatchewan and Manitoba had a similar experience. Most of the 336 migrants who reached Saskatchewan during the early 1900s took up farms in the Eldon district; however, necessity forced many of the men to find winter jobs in the region’s larger centres, such as North Battleford, Lloydminster, and Saskatoon, and temporary migration often foreshadowed an eventual shift of entire families to the cities. Smaller groups of farming families scattered across Manitoba, totalling about 200 people. In addition, Winnipeg, like Calgary, had a black settlement centred on the railway yards.

The emergence of black urban neighbourhoods was evident in other parts of the country, too. The West Indians who located in Sydney, Nova Scotia, in the early twentieth century took jobs in the coal and steel industries and settled in a defined area of Whitney Pier, separated from the rest of Sydney by the steel plant and the railway tracks. Blacks from other parts of Nova Scotia were also migrating towards the expanding economy of Sydney, as were some black Americans, but West Indian influences prevailed and the Whitney Pier community of about 600 people remained culturally distinct. Although many moved away from Cape Breton altogether, Sydney blacks largely remained in the original neighbourhood, known as “Coke Ovens.” In Montreal, the American migrants, characterized by railway employment, came to inhabit an area close to the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railway yards. As they were joined by families and by other blacks with no particular connection to the railway, housing discrimination in other parts of Montreal directed most of them towards the existing black community and its main thoroughfare, St Antoine Street. Nineteenth-century fugitives who settled in urban Ontario, particularly Toronto, Chatham, Hamilton, and Windsor, also developed residential communities located around their churches and concentrated, for the most part, in the least expensive districts. To the original African-American population of Toronto there was added an increasing flow of migrants from other parts of Canada and, in smaller numbers, from overseas.

Official records, including the census, provide inadequate data on the numbers and locations of African Canadians. Terminology has been imprecise, and there was sometimes a deliberate effort to underestimate the black population. As a general rule, private and community estimates have been about double the official census total. The figures in Table 1 are presented on the understanding that African Canadians have been consistently under-represented, though they remain useful in reflecting the declining trend from 1871 to 1911 (a period when the Canadian population generally was expanding enormously) and then an uneven growth towards 1961. The sudden increase from 1951 to 1961 was not a product of migration but of a more accurate count by the census-takers. Until 1971, when the impact of West Indian immigration was felt in the census figures, regional distribution had remained reasonably stable. The most marked demographic development was the urbanization of the black population. In 1901, for the first time, the ratio of urban African Canadians to rural ones was even (this would not happen in the general population until 1931), and it has been increasing in every census since then. By 1971, 85 percent of Canadian “Negroes” were urban, not including the “West Indians” who were 98 percent urban, and in that year Toronto already had 42 percent of the African-Canadian total. The settlement patterns of Caribbean and African immigrants since 1971 have accentuated these trends.

Refinements in the census since 1971 have made numerical precision more likely, but the lack of consistency over time makes historical comparison extremely difficult. Since there is still no direct question on “colour,” citizens must consider themselves to be “black” by culture and ethnicity in order to be counted as “black” for census purposes. In 1981, for the first time, the census questionnaire was self-administered (it had been partly so in 1971), and multiple origins were accepted but not encouraged. In 1991 a mark-in space for “black” was added, making it easier for people to indicate a black identity. As well, responses of multiple origins were encouraged and categories suggesting black ethnicity were expanded. All these amendments made it more likely that a person with some African ancestry would identify it on the census.

The 1991 census offers the most detailed information about Canadians with roots in Africa, but there remain incompatibilities which must be interpreted. For example, there were 298,580 Canadians born in the Caribbean but only 94,395 single responses and 72,225 multiple responses (166,620 in total) showing “Caribbean” ethnicity. “Blacks” had meanwhile grown to 224,620 single responses and 127,045 multiple (351,665 in total), a population obviously including many persons born in the Caribbean. The 1991 census also listed 166,165 persons born in Africa but, for reasons explained earlier, it is not possible to assume that they are all black. There were, however, 26,430 persons who described their ethnicity as “African” and 13,180 others gave multiple responses, for a total of 39,610. All of these people were almost certainly black, and there must have been Afri-


African Canadians in census returns, 1871–1991
1871 Negroes 21,496
1881 Negroes 21,394
1881 Negroes 21,394
1891 not listed
1901 Negroes 17,437
1911 Negroes 16,194
1921 Negroes 18,291
1931 Negroes 19,456
1941 Negroes 22,174
1951 Negroes 18,020
1961 Negroes 32,127
1971 Negroes 34,445
West Indians 28,025
1981 Black (single) 26,425
Black (multiple) 4,550
Caribbean (single) 81,955
Caribbean (multiple) 7,610
1991 Black (single) 224,620
Black (multiple) 127,045
Caribbean (single) 94,395
Caribbean (multiple) 72,225
African (single) 26,430
African (multiple) 13,180

Source: Census of Canada, 1991

cans who, like some West Indians, identified themselves simply as “black.”

Absolute precision, therefore, is still impossible, but the greatly enhanced dimensions of the Canadian population with some African ancestry are readily apparent. Regional distribution reflects patterns that have been developing throughout the twentieth century. Of the single-response entries for “black,” “Caribbean,” and “African” (345,445), 3.7 percent live in the Maritimes, 20.4 percent in Quebec, 66.3 percent in Ontario, 6.8 percent in the prairies, and 2.8 percent in British Columbia. Metropolitan Toronto alone, with 189,155 single responses, contains 55 percent of the national total; Montreal, with 66,045, has almost 20 percent. The total population covered by the term “African Canadian” undoubtedly includes all those who entered a single response of “black,” “Caribbean,” and “African.” Some of the 212,450 multiple responses must be combinations among these three, but some must reflect multiple ancestry with white or other groupings. Besides, incompatibilities between place of birth and ethnicity imply that self-categorization by ethnic group may not have captured all the black people in Canada. All things considered, one cannot go farther than to suggest that, in light of the figures given above, there were in 1991 about half a million people in Canada of African or partially African descent.