Slavery is very much a part of Canada’s history



A BLACK WOMAN, named Peggy, aged about forty years; and a Black boy her son, named JUPITER aged about fifteen years, both of them the property of the subscriber. The woman is a tolerable cook and washer woman and perfectly understands making soap and candles.

The boy is tall and strong of his age, and has been employed in County business, but brought up principally as a House Servant – They are each of them Servants for life. The price for the Woman is one hundred and fifty Dollars – for the Boy two hundred Dollars, payable in three years with interest from the day of Sale and to be properly secured by Bond &c. – But one fourth less will be taken in ready Money.


York, Feb. 10, 1806

Peter Russell was at one point considered the successor of his friend and colleague Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. When ill health forced Simcoe to leave Upper Canada (Ontario), Russell was appointed the provincial administrator.

Russell was a member of the Executive Council of Ontario and the “Family Compact” (a small group of officials who dominated the executive and legislative councils, senior bureaucratic positions and the judiciary of Upper Canada until the 1830s) before he was appointed provincial administrator in July 1796.

He remained acting in the position of administrator until 1799 when Simcoe’s permanent replacement as Lieutenant Governor (Peter Hunter) was appointed. Russell and his sister Elizabeth were slave owners who for many years enslaved Peggy, her son Jupiter and her two daughters even though Peggy was married to a free African-Canadian man, Mr. Pompadour.

The law designated that children born of enslaved African women were also enslaved at birth even if (as in many cases) the children were sired by the White owners of the enslaved women. Since Peggy was the property of Peter Russell and his sister Elizabeth, her children at birth automatically became Russell property.

Peggy occasionally practiced what Dr. Verene Shepherd in her book I Want to Disturb My Neighbour: Lectures on Slavery, Emancipation and Postcolonial Jamaica, terms “petticoat rebellion”. Dr. Shepherd writes that the term was first used by Matthew Gregory Lewis, the owner of Cornwall estate in western Jamaica. In a January 26, 1816 entry in his diary as he described the resistance of an enslaved African woman who when confronted by an abusive overseer on the plantation, “flew at his throat, and endeavoured to strangle him”.

Although Peggy Pompadour in Upper Canada was never accused of physically defending herself or her children against the brutal slave system they endured, she and her son were accused of and were punished for being “insolent”. Peggy and Jupiter occasionally left the Russell property to assert some form of ownership over their own bodies, as a form of their resistance to their enslavement. On one occasion a notice from Peter Russell appeared on September 2, 1803 in the Upper Canada Gazette stating: “The subscriber’s Black servant Peggy not having his permission to absent herself from his service, the public are hereby cautioned from employing or harboring her without the owner’s leave. Whoever will do so after this notice may expect to be treated as the law directs.”

The lives of Peggy, Jupiter and Peggy’s younger children Amy and Milly were not an anomaly in Canada. Even though Canada was the destination of thousands of enslaved Africans fleeing their enslaved status in the U.S., slavery was also practiced in Canada. The first named enslaved African to reside in Canada was a six-year-old boy who was kidnapped from his home in Madagascar and was first owned by David Kirke in 1628.

The child was sold several times, was baptized Catholic and given the name Olivier Le Jeune; one of his owners was Father Paul Le Jeune. There is no record of the African name of the kidnapped and enslaved child renamed Olivier Le Jeune by his enslavers.

Slavery in Canada was just as brutal and dreadful as slavery in Brazil, Cuba or the U.S. Enslaved Africans were sold away from their families, were beaten to death, enslaved women were raped by their owners, their owners’ relatives, colleagues and friends. Enslaved Africans were regularly advertised for sale in the Upper Canada Gazette. When Peter Russell died in 1808, his sister Elizabeth inherited his property, including the Pompadour family – Peggy and her children. Elizabeth Russell eventually gave away Peggy’s child, Amy, to her goddaughter Elizabeth Denison as a gift.

One of the most well-known life stories of an enslaved person in Canada is that of Marie-Joseph Angélique. Her life story is documented in Dr. Afua Cooper’s 2007 book The Hanging of Angilique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal.

Marie-Joseph Angélique was an enslaved African woman who was born in Portugal but sold a few times before ending up in Montreal as the property of Quebecois merchant Francois Poulin de Francheville and his wife.

After his death, de Francheville’s widow planned to sell Angélique again. She had already been sold from her birthplace in Portugal, to the U.S. then to New France (Quebec.) In the space of a few short years she had to learn English (in the U.S.) and French (in Quebec). Enslaved people were brutally beaten when they did not understand the language of their enslavers and needed time to decipher instructions, commands and demands made in the strange new language.

Angélique was accused of setting fire to her owner’s home to cover her attempted escape from the de Francheville widow on April 10, 1734. Raging out of control, the fire destroyed 46 buildings. Angélique fled during the commotion of the efforts to contain the blaze but she was hunted down and captured. She was tried, found guilty and sentenced to have her hand cut off before being burned alive.

The sentence was reduced to hanging and burning. On June 21, 1734, she was tortured until she confessed, she was driven through the streets of Montreal in a rubbish cart, then publicly executed by hanging, her body was burned and her ashes scattered in Montreal. She was 29 years old.

The lives of enslaved Africans like Peggy Pompadour, her son Jupiter and Marie-Joseph Angélique are part of Canadian history that is becoming better known. In the 1980s when I bought Daniel G. Hill’s book, The Freedom Seekers, the stories were not as well known.

During this month, African Heritage/Black History Month and this year the United Nations-declared International Year for People of African Descent (IYPAD), we need to read and educate ourselves, our children, family, friends, colleagues and coworkers about our history.

Our history did not begin with slavery but we did suffer 400 years of enslavement and disconnection from our roots and the effects are felt to this day.

On August 24, 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the British Parliament and became law on August 1, 1834. The mindset that allowed Africans fleeing slavery from the U.S. to be free once they reached Canada and continued to allow enslaved Africans in Canada to remain in bondage until August 1, 1834 when slavery was abolished by the British Parliament is still in operation today.

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