Black people have lived in Canada since the beginnings of transatlantic settlement. A few came as explorers, more came as slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries, still more as former American slaves fleeing to Canada between 1783 and 1865, and since then as free immigrants from the United States, the West Indies, and Africa.
Until the 1980s very few came directly from their ancestral continent, yet the label African Canadian is being used increasingly to include all Canadians of African descent, wherever they were born. In the 1996 census, African Canadians composed about 2 percent of the total Canadian population.
Africans participated in many of the earliest voyages to the territory now known as Canada. A legend persists that one of Jacques Cartier’s crew members came originally from Africa, though the first name on record is that of Mathieu de Coste (or da Costa) who served the governor of Acadia in 1608 as an interpreter to the Micmac Nation.
The first slave transported directly from Africa to Canada was a child brought to Quebec in 1628 by the English invader David Kirke, and sold to a local resident on Kirke’s departure in 1629. The child was baptized in May 1633 as Olivier Le Jeune, and died in 1654 while still a young man. Between 1628 and the British Conquest in 1759, 1132 slaves of African origin were brought to New France. Governor Denonville sought permission to establish a trade in African slaves in 1688, but royal permission was denied and so there was never any direct importation from Africa.
Most of the Africans came from the British colonies in North America or from the French West Indies. About 60 percent of the imported slaves were male and 40 percent female, and almost all of them were located in urban centers as domestic servants. Usually they were owned singly or in very small numbers, and most served the same family throughout their lives.
Black slaves lived in the British regions of Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries — 104 were listed in a 1767 census of Nova Scotia — but their numbers were small until the Loyalist influx after 1783. As white Loyalists fled the new American Republic, they took with them about 2000 black slaves: 1200 to the Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island), 300 to Lower Canada (Quebec), and 500 to Upper Canada (Ontario). As in New France, Loyalist slaves were held in small numbers and were employed as domestic servants, farm hands, and skilled artisans.
The system of gang labor, and its consequent institutions of control and brutality, did not develop in Canada. Because they did not appear to pose a threat to their masters, slaves were permitted to learn to read and write, Christian conversion was encouraged, and their marriages were recognized by law. In 1793 Upper Canada became the first territory in the British Empire to legislate the gradual abolition of slavery.
By 1800 the other provinces of British North America had effectively limited slavery through court decisions requiring the strictest proof of ownership, which was rarely available. Slavery remained legal, however, until the British Parliament emancipated slaves throughout the empire effective August 1, 1834.