The first Black credited with coming to Canada was Mattieu da Costa, who served as a guide and interpreter for the French expedition of Pierre de Gua, sieur de Monts. It was this expedition which established the colony of Port Royal in 1605. Mattieu da Costa returned to France with the expedition. One of the first Blacks who stayed in Canada was a slave named Olivier Legeune, who arrived as a child in 1628, and was a slave in the new colony until his death in 1654.
In 1689, King Louis XIV of France gave formal permission for his settlers to use slaves in New France. By the time of the British conquest of New France in 1760, there were 1,000 slaves in the French territory.
For these people the change from French to British rule made no difference - they remained slaves to new masters. By the time of the American Revolution in 1775, there were approximately 500,000 African slaves in the thirteen rebel colonies. These people provided the labour upon which the economy was based. The British General, Sir Guy Carleton, felt that if he could convince the Blacks to remain loyal to the British and actively fight against their White owners, the economy of the colonies would collapse. He enticed the loyalty of the Blacks, by offering them their freedom. Although thousands of Blacks took the British up on their offer, the economy of the rebel colonies did not collapse, and Britain lost the war. Thousands of Loyalists fled north to Canada. Most settled in the Maritime provinces, and, to a lesser degree in Upper & Lower Canada. Amongst those who fled north were 3,500 Black Loyalists who were granted their freedom by the British, and 1,500 Blacks who came north as slaves to the White Loyalists. 2,500 Black Loyalists settled together outside Sherbourne, Nova Scotia, a town which had been forged out of the wilderness to accommodate the White Loyalists. Birchtown was probably the largest settlement outside of Africa in 1784.
Regardless of the colour of their skin, loyalists were promised land grants for their loyalty to the British Crown. The size of the land grant depended on the amount that was sacrificed by remaining loyal. British Officers were granted 1,000 acres, while the average White received a grant of about 100 acres. The Blacks were deemed to have given up the least, since they had not owned any land in The States. Blacks had to wait several years for their allotment, when and if it was ever granted. The average Black received 34 acres of poor land.
Many Black Loyalists did not receive any land at all. The Blacks of Nova Scotia were disappointed by the land grants, the racism with regards to hiring, and the vandalism which was occurring in their communities by Whites. 1,200 of the Black Loyalists, the majority of whom were either born in Africa or were only one generation away from the slave ships, decided to return to Africa. Led by Thomas Peters, a Black Loyalist, who had tried to work towards better land grants for the Blacks, 1,200 Blacks boarded ships in Halifax harbour. With little resources and no medical supplies, they were determined to return to Africa. They settled in Seirra Leone and founded the city of Freetown.
In 1803, William Osgood, Chief Justice of Lower Canada, banned slavery. The 300 slaves held in Lower Canada were freed. Slavery in Upper Canada had been declining since 1793, when John Graves Simcoe challenged the legality of slavery. 'The Upper Canada Act' had freed no slaves, however, but only proposed the gradual emancipation.
At the outset of the War of 1812, John Robinson, the Attorney General of Upper Canada, granted freedom to all Blacks who crossed from the United States into Upper Canada.
For the second time in forty years, Blacks were being offered their freedom in exchange for their loyalty. Blacks fought alongside the Whites against the Americans invaders. The Americans were defeated by the British. Yankee dreams of northern expansion ended. As was the case following the American Revolution, there was an influx of Blacks who had fought alongside the British during the War of 1812. Again, land granted to the Blacks for their service to the British was of poor quality compared to their White counterparts.
Following the War of 1812, word filtered down to the States that if Blacks were able to make it to Canada, they would be free. The idea of following the north star to freedom was born. In the 1830's, an elaborate system was set up to try and help slaves escape to Canada. Known as the 'UndergroundRailroad', it was not a railroad, but a network of safe houses and guides who helped the escaping slaves avoid detection. They used railroad jargon as code to avoid detection. Between 1830 and 1865, approximately 30,000 Blacks escaped to Canada. Unlike the Blacks who had fought with the British during the American Revolution, or during the War of 1812, the escaping slaves arrived with just the clothes on their back.8 During the 1850's, Blacks began to make their way from the racist, segregated, conditions of California north to Canada. Settling in Vancouver, many of these Blacks staked claims and started to search for gold. The White Californians who traveled north as well, brought their racist attitudes with them. Much of the segregation which existed on Vancouver Island was imported with the White Americans. During the 1860's, Americans started indicating their intentions of claiming Vancouver as their territory. The only military group on the island was made up of the Black Pioneer Rifles, a self- financed all-Black militia.
During the 1890's, the Canadian Government actively tried to attract settlers to Canada's West. Amongst those who were attracted by the offer of free land, hundreds of Blacks, many from Upper Canada, made their way West. In the rugged, rural setting of Canada's prairies, there was no time for racism. Each of the settlers depended upon his neighbour, regardless of colour, to help clear the land, and build a homestead. They were interdependent. In 1909, a group of Blacks arrived from the American West to the Canadian West. Fearing an influx of Blacks would change the White character of the West, a racist legislation was passed by the Canadian government, making it more difficult for Blacks to immigrate to Canada. After World War II, the legislation was finally lifted. Between 1950 and 1965, 350,000 Caribbean Blacks settled in Canada. A further 150,000 Blacks arrived from Africa.
These immigrants were better educated, and moved to the urban areas of Canada. The existing Black community was forever altered. Today, there is a concerted effort to rid Canada of the racism and prejudice which exists just below the surface. Despite our best efforts, Blacks still face many obstacles in terms of employment, education and standard of living, but the new Black immigrants arriving in Canada are continuing to make inroads into professions which were blocked in the past.