PO Box 523, Station B, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6
Tuesday, 04 April 2023 10:13

Slavery in Upper Canada

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To mark Black History Month, our February 22, 2023 Virtual Speaker Series presentation featured Glenn Sweazey, who revealed to us the (gradual) end of slavery in Upper Canada. Glenn spent his career as a High School English teacher and is now a writer living in Ottawa. His work weaves elements of poetry and prose to create a narrative tapestry. He is a teller of stories with a story to tell.

Glenn was introduced to us by June Girvan, President of Black History Ottawa, with whom HSO is proud to partner for this presentation. June, originally from Jamaica, has spent over 6 decades in Canada and is a noted educator and activist. She established the J’Nikira Dinqinesh Education Centre (JDEC), named for her children, in Ottawa. The JDEC commemorates pioneers who championed anti-slavery, human rights and social justice in Canada, and bequeathed to us, our North Star legacy. June remained with us through the evening, adding additional information and valuable insight, especially during the question and answer period that followed Glenn’s formal presentation.

Glenn reminded us that what we generally know and learn is often a narrative myth in which some facts, and some voices, are selectively forgotten. In the case of slavery in Upper Canada, what we “know” is that Upper Canada was the terminus of the Underground Railroad, a safe and welcoming sanctuary for slaved people escaping the plantations of the southern United States. As Ontarians, what we have forgotten is our own history of slavery and the voices of those who were enslaved.

Slavery in Upper Canada, (part of Quebec until 1791), took a dramatic jump following the end of the American Revolution in 1784. In 1790, the British Government passed the Imperial Act, which encouraged loyal subjects to move north with their "possessions", which included their enslaved people. This led to an estimated 500 – 700 slaves being held in Upper Canada in the 1790s.

Glenn related the story of Chloe Cooley, an enslaved person living in the Niagara-on-the-Lake area. In March of 1793, she was beaten, bound and taken by boat across the Niagara River to the USA by her owner Adam Vrooma and sold. Her cries of protest did not help her, but they were heard and reported to the authorities, and served as a spark to the anti-slavery movement in Upper Canada. In July 1793, John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada signed into law “An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude” (also known as the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada).

Glenn explained that the Act was, by necessity, a compromise, as many members of the Legislature were themselves slave owners. Thus the Act did not free existing slaves, but did ban the import of new slaves, and freed those born into slavery in Upper Canada subsequent to the Act, once they reached the age of 25. Even this was too much for some and an attempt was made in 1798 to effectively overturn the 1793 Act; the attempt failed when the Legislative Session came to an end before it could be voted on by the upper chamber, the Legislative Council.

Slavery continued in this modified form and Glenn recounted the story of Peggy Pompadour, who with her three children was owned by a prominent member of the Legislature, Peter Russell. Glenn read to us an ad placed by Russell in February 1806 offering Peggy for sale for $150 and her son, Jupiter, for $200. Financing could be arranged and a discount for a straight cash payment was offered.

Slavery might have continued to carry on in this manner for quite some time had events in another British Colony not raised the alarm. In December 1831, a slave revolt erupted in Jamaica led by Samuel Sharpe (aka Archer), himself a slave and a Baptist Deacon. The violent uprising shocked the British Parliament, and on August 28, 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act received Royal Assent, ending slavery in most of the British Empire. The Act became effective the following year, August 1, 1834, but in implementation most slaves remained indentured as “apprentices”, for four more years while they “learnt how” to be free. Glenn and June pointed out that the freeing of the slaves came with compensation, to their former owners for the loss of their property, not to the former slaves, who were left to fend for themselves.

The year 2023 marks the 230th anniversary of the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada and the 190th anniversary of the Slavery Abolition Act. Despite this passage of time, echoes of the era of enslavement remain. We still choose to honour those who owned slaves through the use of their names as places and streets within our communities.

To view a complete recording of Glenn’s presentation, see the video on the HSO YouTube channel.