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Slavery Attacked in Upper Canada

For the week of Monday July 6, 1998

On July 9, 1793, Royal Assent was given to a colonial "Act to prevent the further introduction of Slaves, and to limit the term of Contracts for servitude" within Upper Canada, now southern Ontario. A personal initiative by Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, it was a cautious step toward justice for the small number of African slaves in Canada.

1793 Act Against Slavery: Key Points
  • Status of current slaves would remain the same.
  • Slave children born after 1793 were to become free at age 25.
  • Further importation of slaves into Upper Canada was forbidden.
  • All slaves brought into the province by their owners, or reaching the province under their own efforts after 1793 were automatically free.
Canada never developed slave-based plantation agriculture similar to that of the West Indies and southern United States. However, until 1834, Canadians permitted and enforced the ownership of human beings. The earliest known black slave in Canada was six-year-old Olivier Lejeune, brought from Madagascar in 1628. King Louis XIV of France gave approval in 1689 for settlers to import slaves to help clear the land and to act as servants.

In England, slavery ended in 1772. James Somerset, a Virginia slave, was brought by his owner to England, but escaped. His freedom was confirmed when a court ruled that slavery violated English Common Law, and could not exist in England itself. The decision did not affect the colonies, but there, too, the sympathy of judges and juries was often with the runaways, not the owners. For example, courts in Nova Scotia began to demand iron-clad proof of ownership in claims involving runaways.

'Woman of Colour' Upper Canada, 1830s

'Woman of Colour' Upper Canada, 1830s
© Watercolour by Caroline Estcourt / LAC / C-093963

In Upper Canada, Simcoe argued that Christian teaching condemned slavery and that the British constitution did not allow it. His problem was that slavery was both accepted and supported by prominent and powerful Upper Canadians. William Jarvis (Provincial Secretary), Robert Gray (Solicitor-General), and other political and social leaders owned slaves. Nine members of the appointed Legislative Council, and six of the 16 original members of the elected Legislative Assembly, were slave owners or members of slave-owning families. It was no wonder that Simcoe could not force the immediate and complete abolition of slavery! Eventually, the British parliament abolished slavery throughout the Empire, including Upper Canada, in 1834. (The United States did not follow until 1865.)

The Act of 1793 made Upper Canada the first British territory to legislate against slavery. Simcoe's legislation challenged public opinion and eventually encouraged thousands of Blacks in the U.S. to seek freedom in Upper Canada. In 1993, on the recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, the Act of 1793 was commemorated by a plaque at the old provincial capital, Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Board has also recognized the importance of editor Mary Ann Shadd and community leader Josiah Henson, freedom seekers who made a new home in Upper Canada. These and many other African Canadians can be read about in a book by human rights activist Daniel G. Hill, The Freedom Seekers, Blacks in Early Canada (Toronto: Book Society of Canada, 1981).

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