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Diversity and inclusion in Canada: A historical perspective

Written by Think Forward Staff
Friday, 08 May 2015

As Canadians, we are often told that Canada has a long history of being more tolerant and accepting of minority groups than our American neighbours. While this may be true of the past century, was Canadian treatment of minorities always so positive?

One thing we know is that slavery in Canada, unlike in the United States, was being phased out around the time of the American Revolution in that the sale of new slaves was abolished – though current slaves were “grandfathered” and not fully freed until 1833. This means that, theoretically, if American slaves were to escape to British North America they could not be re-enslaved. They would be free, at least as in theory. Indeed, this wasn’t uncommon as many American slaves escaped to British lines during the Revolutionary War and served  – through servitude and military service – with the army in order to gain passage to the Maritimes.

So it's worth examining the experiences of the former American slaves who did this in order to determine if, historically, Canada was in fact more tolerant and respectful of minorities than the United States.

Despite the fact that many former American slaves found relative freedom in the Maritimes, others also eventually made their way to Sierra Leone. So why, if Canada supposedly has a long history of tolerance and respect for minorities, did these people choose to leave? In order to find out, we must briefly look at the experiences of these people prior to and during their time in the Maritimes.

David George was born a slave in Essex County, Virginia to parents who were brought over from Africa. Growing up, he saw his family members get beaten and whipped on multiple occasions, and he was whipped as well. Though he noted that his worst experience was seeing his mother get whipped. George learned to read through his master’s children and began reading the Bible, eventually becoming a preacher. During the revolution, George and his wife and three children were granted passage by the British to Nova Scotia, as part of British efforts to sabotage the American economy, especially in the South. George then set sail, with a number of other freed blacks and indeed many whites, for Halifax. As he described it, “we were 22 days on the passage, and used very ill on board.”

Upon arriving ashore and showing his papers to General Patterson, the general sent orders for George’s wife and children to join him. They stayed in Halifax for just over six months and then made their way to Shelburne. While in Shelburne, George noted that, “numbers of my own colour were there, but I found the whites were against me.” George preached in the woods in Shelburne, to blacks and whites alike, and was the head of the Baptist congregation in Birchtown (a town within Shelburne).

Despite the relative freedom that George enjoyed in the Maritimes, he still felt as though the whites were prejudice towards himself and other blacks, and he even said that some of the whites treated them as though they were still slaves.

After several years in Nova Scotia, George and his family set sail for Sierra Leone, where the British were providing some assistance in setting up a new colony in Free Town. There are numerous reasons why George would have chosen to leave Canada. The racism he experienced in Nova Scotia would have certainly been a deciding factor, but perhaps even more so was the opportunity to preach and convert Africans in Sierra Leone. As a preacher, and one who converted to Christianity himself, George was very intent on bringing others into the Christian faith. In short, migrating to Free Town allowed George to both escape from the racism and persecution he had felt in Nova Scotia and gave him an opportunity to preach to and convert those in the land of his parents and ancestors. Interestingly enough, however, many of the whites in Nova Scotia pleaded with the blacks not to leave, saying that they would be sold back into slavery if they went to Sierra Leone.[i]

Like George, Boston King was an American slave who gained his freedom by escaping to British lines when they occupied Charleston and promised freedom to slaves. However, unlike David George, King initially migrated to New York and became a master carpenter, among other things. He also met his wife, Violet, a former slave from North Carolina who had also made her way to New York because of the promise of freedom for service with the British army.

Eventually, King and his wife would evacuate with the British and resettle in Nova Scotia. Like George, the Kings eventually settled in Birchtown in Shelburne. While in Nova Scotia, King became a Methodist Christian and was later appointed a minister to a Methodist congregation in Preston, Nova Scotia.[ii]

Despite the relative freedom both King and George experienced during their time in Nova Scotia, Thomas Peters would later reveal to John Clarkson during Clarkson’s investigation in British North America, that African Americans faced enormous challenges in Nova Scotia during that time.

For example, there were often delays in the approval of land grants and supplies for black settlers. Additionally, the soil on the land they were granted – after they finally received it – turned out to be too poor to support a great deal of farming. As such, blacks in Nova Scotia were put at an immediate disadvantage when compared to whites. This, coupled with the prejudice and intolerance of many whites in Nova Scotia, makes it very easy to understand why many African Americans made the conscious decision to leave the Maritimes for Sierra Leone.  For George and King, in particular, as they were both preachers, the opportunity to preach to and convert Africans made their migration almost inevitable.[iii]

So, does Canada have a long history of being more tolerant and respectful towards minorities than the U.S.? That depends on how we define tolerance and respect. It is absolutely true that slavery in Canada was abolished, both in practice and in law, long before it was in the U.S. However, we as Canadians cannot honestly say that, as a society, we have long been less racist than our American neighbours. It was noted by both George and King that there was much racism and prejudice against blacks by whites in the Maritimes. So while blacks in Canada were theoretically “free,” they were still thought of as being lesser or inferior by many white Canadians.

Tolerance and respect for minorities goes far beyond the abolition of slavery. Simply because a society does not enslave an entire race of people does not mean that said society is in any way tolerant or respectful of that group. Without doubt, this was true of white Nova Scotians during the late 1700s.

[i]Vincent Carretta, 2003, Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 333-350.

[ii]Ibid, 351-364.

[iii]John Clarkson and Charles Bruce Ferguson, 1971, Clarkson's Mission to America, 1791-1792, Halifax, Public Archives of Nova Scotia, 31-35.



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