Slavery in New France

The presence of Blacks or Afro-descendants in Canada is not the result of recent immigration. Blacks lived in Quebec and all across Canada well before the recent immigration of Haitians, Jamaicans and Africans.

For a long time, many preferred to believe that New France had not really been pro-slavery because the Kingdom of France had declared it a “Land of Liberty” and freed any slave who came there to take refuge. But signs of racism and discrimination began to surface from the very beginning of the reign of New France, particularly with the enslavement of Aboriginals and Blacks. Slavery has always been a taboo subject in Quebec and in Canada.

Quebec took up the practice of slavery while under French and British rule, albeit in a less widespread fashion than in the U.S. or Latin America. Before 1800, according to the historian Marcel Trudel, there were more than 4,000 slaves residing in the area between Gaspé and Detroit (then a French Canadian city), two-thirds of which were Amerindians and the other third of African descent: slaves who were bought, sold, traded or handed down as part of an inheritance, all of it legal.

The slaves of African origin mostly belonged to specific organizations (merchants, traders, soldiers, governors, bishops, priests, nuns). The majority of slaves in New France lived in Montreal or the surrounding area and worked as servants. They did the laundry and cooking and supervised the children. Some worked as farm labourers; others performed harder labour, building and defending the French fur trading posts. The life expectancy of slaves was very short: many of them died before reaching the age of thirty.

The importation of slaves was first banned in Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1793. But despite the efforts of anti-slavery groups in the Montreal area, it wasn’t until August 28, 1833, that slavery was finally abolished in Quebec, although slavery had been against the law in France since 1759. England officially ended slavery in 1834 in all of its colonies.

History has preserved the memory of some famous slaves :

  • Olivier Le Jeune, a native of Madagascar, who was renamed after the colony’s head clerk, was the first recorded slave purchased in New France (1628). He disappeared on May 10, 1654.
  • Marie-Angelique was a slave condemned to death for a fire she was accused of starting that destroyed 45 homes and a hospital in Montreal, which was then pro-slavery.
  • In the 1950s, the remains of the only known slave cemetery (Nigger Rock) was discovered in the village of Saint-Armand near the shores of Lake Champlain, not far from Montreal. According to regional oral tradition, the cemetery dates back to the turn of the nineteenth century. The story was given even more credence by an 1851 census that showed 283 Blacks living in the Brome-Missisquoi region.