Key Historic Events

The first recorded person of African heritage to set foot in what would become Canada arrived on our shores some 400 years ago. It is believed that, in 1604, Mathieu Da Costa arrived with the French explorers Pierre Du Gua De Monts and Samuel de Champlain. Da Costa, a free man, worked as an interpreter, providing an invaluable link with the Mik’maq people encountered by the Europeans.

Slavery existed in Canada from 1628 until it was abolished in Upper Canada in 1793 and throughout the entire British empire in 1833.

The first known slave, Olivier LeJeune, was recorded in 1628. He was brought to Canada from Africa as a young child and given the name of one of his owners, a priest.

In 1779, in an effort to win the War of American Independence (1775-1783), the British invited all black men, women and children to join the British cause and win their freedom for doing so. Many accepted the invitation, and as a result 10 percent of the United Empire Loyalists coming into the Maritimes were Black.

In 1793, the Abolition Act was passed in Upper Canada, now known as Ontario. This law freed slaves aged 25 and over and made it illegal to bring slaves into Upper Canada. Consequently, Upper Canada became a safe haven for runaway slaves. The Abolition Act also made Canada the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to move toward the abolition of slavery.

In 1807, the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade received Royal Assent and became law throughout the British Empire. It was the result of a long and arduous campaign in the British Parliament by an alliance of Evangelical Anglicans and Quakers led by William Wilberforce, M.P. (1759-1833).

In 1833, the British Imperial Act abolished slavery throughout the Empire, including Canada. Between 1800 and 1865, approximately 20,000 black people escaped to Canada via the Underground Railway.

During the War of 1812, the Coloured Corps fought in the Battle of Queenston Heights, a decisive engagement with the Americans. The Corps had been established thanks to Richard Pierpoint, a black Loyalist and true Canadian hero.

Railway porters played a major role in the struggle for black rights in Canada. Starting in the late 1880s, they emerged as leaders of black communities in Montréal and other urban centres. Through their unions, such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Order of Sleeping Car Porters, they gained recognition for black workers. After the Second World War, the porters made important contributions to the campaign for human rights, particularly through their struggle to end discrimination in railway employment.

Black Railway Porters
Black Railway Porters,
Windsor train station,
Montréal, Québec
• Africville Geneological Society •

In 1858, nearly 800 free black people left the oppressive racial conditions of San Francisco for a new life on Vancouver Island. Governor James Douglas had invited them to settle in British Columbia. Though still faced with intense discrimination, these pioneers enriched the political, religious and economic life of the colony. For example, Mifflin Gibbs became a prominent politician, Charles and Nancy Alexander initiated the Shady Creek Methodist Church, and John Deas established a salmon cannery. The group also formed one of the earliest colonial militia units, the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps. A ceremony took place on February 20, 2000 in Saanichton, B.C. to honour the arrival of the Black Pioneers to British Columbia.

Black Pioneers to British Columbia
Black Pioneers to British Columbia
• Cathie Ferguson, Parcs Canada •
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