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A History of the Slave Trade in Canada
It began in the early 1600s and ended in the early 1800s with the Underground Railroad. Still today a number of black churches trace their heritage to those days.

The first recorded black resident of Canada in 1628 was a child from Madagascar. He was the property of the famous privateer David Kirke, whose sale of the boy (later baptized as Oliver LeJeune) in New France was Canada's first recorded slave sale.

… the American War of Independence … marked the real birth of Canada's black church.

By the mid-1700s Canada had about 1,000 slaves mainly in Quebec and the slave trade remained brisk (see the article, Slavery Lives Again.

It was the American War of Independence that marked the real birth of Canada's black church. The first free black Canadians to form communities of significant size arrived in Nova Scotia in 1783 from the United States.

They were the Black Loyalists—former American slaves who accepted Britain's offer of freedom and land in exchange for military service in the American Revolution.

But British offers of freedom did not include the slaves of white loyalists, who brought about 2,000 black slaves with them into British North America.

After becoming acquainted with the brutality of slavery in Upper Canada Col. John Graves Simcoe, the region's first lieutenant-governor, began to work for its abolition. Two years later (in 1793) Simcoe and the slave-holding Chief Justice William Osgoode reached a compromise and passed The Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves and to Limit the Term of Enforced Servitude, a bill that freed children of slaves after they reached the age of 25 and prevented new settlers from bringing slaves into Upper Canada.

Then in 1803 Osgoode, by that time chief justice of Lower Canada, ruled slavery was incompatible with British law. While it did not abolish slavery, the historic judgment set free 300 slaves and marked the rapid decline of the enslavement of black people in Lower Canada.

David George, first black loyalist preacher, founded several Baptist churches in Nova Scotia and eventually led many from the community to resettle in West Africa. Of the 3,550 black loyalists who had settled in Nova Scotia, 1,196 joined the exodus to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Those who remained after 1792 ended up in segregated communities such as Africville outside Halifax.

Between 1813 and 1818, 2,000 slaves who had sought refuge behind British lines during the War of 1812 were taken to Nova Scotia.

The Underground Railroad

The largest number of American blacks arrived in Canada using a network of secret routes known as the Underground Railroad. By the onset of the American Civil War in 1861 an estimated 30,000 slaves had found their way into Canada.

As soon as fugitive slaves reached freedom they assembled for worship. In Upper Canada the history of the African churches began with the formation of Salem Chapel in St. Catharines in 1820. In the late 1830s Jesse Coleman, a fugitive slave from Baltimore, Maryland, founded the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and, by 1854, had five affiliated churches in other areas of Upper and Lower Canada.

Today there are a handful of Canadian churches whose members descend from slaves. One of them, First Regular Baptist Church in Dresden, Ontario, a black congregational church founded in 1857, counts 35 members whose ancestors had been slaves.

Rev. Don Wright, who pastors the 60-member church about 60 km from Detroit, Michigan, says the building is about a kilometer from Uncle Tom's cabin. The historic site commemorates the life of Rev. Josiah Henson (1789-1883) and his heroic contributions to the Underground Railroad. It was Henson's life that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous outcry against slavery, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). –Ron Csillag

Churches today share heritage

Other congregations founded by freed slaves include one in Toronto and another in North Preston, Nova Scotia.

First Baptist Church in Toronto, founded by 12 black slaves in 1826, just celebrated its 180th anniversary in November with special services, a banquet and a presentation of Steal Away, a historical dramatization of Canadian black history.

On average about 175 people attend services regularly today. First Baptist also operates a Sunday school and youth and missionary societies.

Pastor Michael Morris says the reason it still exists is "to edify its members and reach out into its community." To that end the church is engaging a student to do a "needs assessment" in the local area to "try to identify some things that we can do."

Morris co-chairs the African Canadian Christian Network and is politically active in addressing the issue of gang violence.

Another congregation with similar roots is St. Thomas Baptist Church in North Preston, Nova Scotia, near Halifax. The church boasts an average attendance of 500 to 600, predominantly black people, and aims to draw more through its programs, including an evangelism ministry. Sunday school enrolment is about 200.

Wally Smith has been attending all of his life (he's the son of the current minister). He says although he's not sure when the church was founded, he estimates the early 1800s. "We have a research committee in place right now that deals specifically with the history of the church," he says.

If music is the universal language of love, St. Thomas communicates well. The church is renowned for its great Gospel choirs. Its Hallelujah Praise Choir won the East Coast Gospel Group of the Year in 2003.

Smith attributes the church's longevity to being attuned to the local community's strengths. "The community is basically well known for its musical ability and we've had some great dynamic preachers over the years," he says. "The church is the focal point of the community—it's where everyone comes for spiritual healing." –Grace Boneschansker

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2007.




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