This year for Black History Month, I have decided to do a bit of research into black history in my home and native land, Canada. Since there are 4 Mondays in February, I am going to focus on 4 different regions of the country. Last week I looked at black history in the prairies. This week, I am focusing on the Ontario, Canada’s oldest and most populous province. This summary will intentionally exclude Toronto – black history in Toronto is so long and complex that any attempt to summarize it in ~1000 words would be doing it a grave disservice.
I was born in British Columbia, living in the interior until I was ten years old. My family moved to the Toronto area in 1994 so that my father could complete his graduate degree in social work at the University of Toronto. I lived in various parts of southern and eastern Ontario over 15 years, including two years in Kingston, Ontario (which was Canada’s first capital and where first Prime Minister John A. MacDonald resided) while I completed my own graduate degree. While I call British Columbia home, I am just as entitled to consider myself a native son of Ontario, having spent my formative years there.
Black history also has long and deep roots in the province of Ontario. After the United States passed the Fugitive Slave act of 1850 which, among other things, compelled people to return runaway slaves to their owners, the northern United States were no longer a safe haven where a slave could find her/his own life. As a result, emigration (flight, really) of black Slaves into Canada began in earnest. Because of where the borders were located, their proximity to major American urban centres, and the difficulty of moving people across the prairies in the United States, Ontario became a prime location to smuggle in freed slaves. As with most displaced peoples, blacks settled and tried to build lives for themselves as soon as they had the opportunity, which means that black settlement in Ontario dates back hundreds of years – prior, in fact, to much of any group settling in the prairies.
One of the earliest such settlements was the farming community of Buxton. Buxton is famous among buffs of the history of slavery, as it was considered the “last stop” on the Underground Railroad that brought escaped slaves from the United States to Canada. The land was purchased and made available to the fugitives by Reverend William King – a fact that should not be overlooked when considering the role of Christians and white abolitionists in the movement to aid slaves. Despite the availability of land and a means of cultivating it, things were obviously not all roses and smiles for freed men in the new “promised land”, as this quote from A NorthSide View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Related by themselves, with an account of the history and condition of the colored population of Upper Canada will attest:
Among some people here, there is as much prejudice as in the States, but they cannot carry it out as they do in the States: the law makes the difference. I am acquainted with many of the colored families here, and they are doing well. We have good schools here.
Once again, this fact cannot be overlooked by those who would claim that Canada was a racism-free land of milk and honey, or those who would claim that passing laws against discrimination or other prejudice are ineffectual.
I’ve been to Buxton, Ontario. There are in fact several Buxtons with similar histories – one in Nova Scotia, and another in Grenada in the West Indies. The Buxton I went to has a graveyard, which is perhaps the oldest and best-kept black historical site in Canada. There are Cromwells buried in the cemetery at Buxton, Ontario, but these are likely no relation to me – our name is a bastardization of a Dutch surname. Near Buxton is the small town of Chatham, which has its own distinct historical significance. Perhaps chief among its contributions is the fact that it was used as the staging ground for the famous raid on Harper’s Ferry by the American abolitionist John Brown.
In my pokings around doing research for this article, I was struck with a bit of history I had never even heard hinted at before. Reading books by Lawrence Hill (a great Canadian author who you should definitely look into if you get a chance), I learned that Oakville, Ontario has a long black history. This is a particularly outrageous suggestion, given the nearly monochromatic makeup of Oakville currently. I was looking for some information to corroborate this, when I discovered that the Niagara Movement has a Canadian origin.
The Niagara Movement was a political group devoted to antisegregation and the improvement of the plight of black people in the United States, founded by black intellectuals under the supervisory auspices of W.E.B. Du Bois – himself a prominent and influential black intellectual whose life history is an amazing story
that is chronicled in the book Up From Slavery (n.b. – Up From Slavery was written by Booker T. Washington, not Du Bois. Du Bois has written several autobiographies, the most recent of which was published in 1968, and which I apparently need to read post-haste). The Niagara Movement laid down the foundation of what would become the prevailing attitude towards the improvement of black people’s lives, and eventually lead to the foundation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which is, of course, still in existence. The inaugural meeting took place in Fort Erie, Ontario near Niagara Falls. Interestingly, the advancement of women was part of the foundation of this movement, working in concert with and anticipating the suffrage movement that was to define the next few decades.
It was at their meeting in Fort Erie that they (mostly Du Bois) built the basis of their foundational document that called for, among many other things, equal and desegregated schools, the protection of trade unions, anti-discrimination statues, and a number of other things that would make any decent conservative wake up in a cold sweat. They also criticized the institution of the Christian churches, particularly their complicity in racial prejudice. Once again, these facts speak against the attempt to re-brand the abolition movement as being in line with conservativism or Christianity, as is often attempted.
As I stated in the header, there is far more to black history in Ontario than I can comfortably address here, and more conscientious scholars than your humble narrator have done much more thorough jobs of chronicling it. The “take home message” of this piece (indeed, all of these pieces) is that black history is closely tied to Canadian history. The prosperity and stability of the territory of Upper Canada (the early name for Ontario) owes a good portion of its existence to the contributions made by black people – freed slaves and their descendants alike. To fail to recognize this is to rewrite history and neglect an important and interesting narrative.
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