During the mid-19th Century, Canada was the end of the line for runaway slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. It is estimated that between 1850 (when the American congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law) and 1865 (the end of the US Civil War), more than 100,000 African-American slaves escaped to Canada, with most settling in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
For many slaves, Canada represented a dream of freedom where slave catchers and lynch mobs couldn’t hurt them. Slaves on the Underground Railroad endured months, and even years, of living like fugitives while bounty hunters and racist government policies were always trying to impede their flight to freedom.
Most slaves started out their journey on the Underground Railroad (which wasn’t an actual railroad but more of a resistance and escape route that was heavily organized by concerned American citizens) by running away from their plantation in the middle of the night. Often the runaway slave was alone, but on many occasions whole families would escape together.
Protestant churches were key meeting halls of the railroad, and escaped slaves would be moved by night from one church to another. Once a slave was found to have escaped, the “owner” had a right to hire bounty hunters to try and catch them. “Owners” could choose to have the slave returned or killed outright. Slaves were considered property, not people, and thus had no rights to life or liberty.
Living in such dread, the route to the free states of the north took amazing strength, and it is estimated that less than half of the slaves who set out on the Underground Railroad actually made it to a free destination. Even when slaves made it to New York or another free state, federal laws permitted bounty hunters to arrest and return slaves to their “owners”. Thus, Canada became the final destination for more than 75% of the slaves escaping the south.
In Canada, a special order-in-council which received Royal Consent in 1855 made it official policy to accept runaway slaves, provide food and clothing and shelter for new arrivals, and to arrest and imprison any bounty hunters found crossing the border. Waves of fugitive slaves arrived in the barely settled lands of Upper Canada (today’s Ontario), often disoriented by the freezing winters, which were a stark contrast to the humid southern states. Despite the environmental challenges, most newly arrived blacks managed to thrive in Canada. Entire towns consisting entirely of black populations sprung up along the St Laurence River and the counties just outside of York (present-day Toronto).
Life wasn’t without difficulties, of course. Just like their American cousins, many white Canadians held severely racist views of their new black neighbours. While the more pious and generous went out of their way to help the new settlers, most Canadians turned a blind eye to their struggles and in some cases assaults and murders against black immigrants were recorded. These were in the minority, however. Institutionalized racism in Canada meant that blacks found it difficult to get jobs or attend schools or apply for any type of government benefits.
African Canadians were part of the growth of Canada, particularly in the key boom years of the 1870’s, following the American Civil War, when Canada aggressively expanded to the west. Many blacks, tired of the racism of the east, joined the wave of European settlers moving to the prairies and were key in establishing today’s thriving cities of Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver.
African Canadians have since become a part of Canada’s history. The descendants of the runaway slaves have fought in Canada’s wars, have become hockey stars, have contributed to the arts and culture, have shared in building great centers of research and innovation, and have even served in the highest offices of the federal government! The Underground Railroad is a key piece of Canada’s history and the contributions of the descendants of the runaway slaves to Canada’s identity, even existence, will be remembered for as long as this country exists.