The Federal government recently declared a day formally recognizing black slavery and the emancipation of slaves in Canada as occurring only in 1834. Yes, slavery certainly existed – but the laws governing it were very different from colony to colony (each of the current provinces was a separate British colony before Confederation in1867).
In the initial government statements a number of events were noted. However it all sounded to this reader as if slavery had been more or less the same across the different British North American colonies, including Upper Canada (now Ontario) until the British government’s decision to emancipate slaves in Britain and the Empire in 1834. That is simply not a accurate picture of what happened here. Lieutenant- Governor John Graves Simcoe ended the slave trade with the US in Upper Canada in 1793 and liberated those slaves entering Canada from 1793 onwards, not 1834. Hence the creation and celebrated history of the Underground Railway which I believe saw some 25-30,000 slaves come to Ontario and come to freedom from the United States between 1800 to the end of the Civil War.
What is also true is the slaves who had been brought to Upper Canada before 1793 remained slaves, and in their cases, yes, those who were still enslaved in 1834 would only have been formally liberated then. However, it would be interesting to know how many of them actually remained slaves and still had formally to be liberated.
Of course, the numbers of slaves and their legal situations also varied from colony to colony – not every British North American Colony was fortunate enough to have had a John Graves – Simcoe in charge during that very key transition time. Yes, Simcoe was ahead of his time. But I also believe his humanity should be celebrated as the first important step in the emancipation process in our country.
Mary Lazier Corbett