Black History in Canada

9 T hough they were considered free, Black people in what is now Canada were often unwelcome in the predominantly white communities scattered throughout the country. Much of the inherent and systemic racism that freedom seekers had fled in the United States could also be found in their new home. Both despite and because of this, many Black people built their own communities. Africville, Nova Scotia, was settled in the mid-19th century by formerly enslaved peoples, Maroons, Black Loyalists, and Black Refugees. By 1887, Little Burgundy housed much of Montreal’s working-class, English-speaking Black community. Chatham, Ontario was settled in the early 1800s and later became a haven for freedom seekers from the United States. In the West, the first Black immigrants to British Columbia came from California in 1858 and settled in Victoria and Salt Spring Island, after being sought out by British Columbia’s first governor, James Douglas, the son of a Black Barbadian-Creole woman and a white man. Douglas promised some Black Californians British citizenship after five years of land ownership, and full protection of the law in the meantime. Several hundred Black families moved to the colony, including a man named Mifflin Gibbs. Spending just over a decade in Canada, Gibbs prospered in business, advocated for the Black community, and served as the first Black person elected to public office in what is now British Columbia, helping guide the province into Confederation. In the early 1900s, people began moving from Victoria and Salt Spring Island to Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver, which became a cultural and social hub and the city’s only largely Black neighbourhood. The Shiloh community became Saskatchewan’s first Black settlement, around 1910. And in Alberta, the Amber Valley settlement was founded in 1910 by African-American families who migrated from Oklahoma, Texas, and other nearby states in response to the Canadian government’s offer of free land. SECTION 4: EARLY BLACK IMMIGRATION THE LAST BEST WEST The Canadian government encouraged a wave of western colonization and immigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Land in the Prairies was advertised to prospective American and European immigrants. This included advertisements placed in Black newspapers in Oklahoma, where state laws had trampled Black Americans’ basic rights and freedoms, and increases in events such as lynchings caused many Black families to consider immigrating to Canada. However, the interior ministry (in charge of immigration) prioritized incoming groups by ethnicity, and in descending preference. On top of the list were Britons and white Americans, followed by northern and central Europeans. Jews, people of Asian descent, Romani people, and Black people were at the bottom of the list. Though few Black immigrants entered the country, settlers reacted to those who did with prejudice. Canadian immigration authorities attempted to stop the arrival of Black immigrants from the United States by limiting their access to immigration materials and by subjecting them to harsh medical exams at the border, even meddling with medical officials. When those measures did not work, immigration officials sent two agents to Oklahoma, whose job was to dissuade Black Americans from going to Canada. Then, on 12 August 1911, the Order-in-Council P.C. 1911-1324 was approved by the Canadian Cabinet. It proposed a one-year ban on Black immigration to Canada, intended to discourage and limit the number of African Americans who settled in the Prairies. Though the order never became law, it joined a long list of proposed immigration bans that reflected Canada’s exclusionary and discriminatory ideals. Despite these obstacles, Black settlements grew into thriving communities. The Amber Valley settlement, for example, featured various businesses, a school, a church, and even had its own baseball team. To learn more, watch The Last Best West video. Still from Africville: The Black community bulldozed by the city of Halifax (Historica Canada) Athabasca Landing, Alberta (Canada. Dept. of Interior/Library and Archives Canada/PA-040745) In 1793, an enslaved woman named Chloe Cooley was violently bound by her enslaver and transported across the Niagara River and sold in the state of New York. At the time, the idea of abolition of enslavement was gaining momentum throughout the British Empire, and Cooley’s experience became the catalyst for the introduction of the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada by Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe. Watch the Chloe Cooley Heritage Minute and read her biography on TCE. Have a short classroom discussion about what you have learned. Why was her enslaver not punished? Why do you think her story was chosen as the subject of a Heritage Minute? Do you think that she is an important figure in Canadian history? Why or why not? What does her story reveal about the societal conditions for enslaved people in Upper Canada at this time? Still from the Chloe Cooley Heritage Minute (Historica Canada)