On this day, 186 years ago, slavery was abolished in the British colonies. However, it took until yesterday for the government of Canada to formally acknowledge the enslavement of Black people in Canada.
The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada has recognized four landmarks and public figures in Canadian Black history including the Enslavement of African People in Canada, the West Indian Domestic Scheme, Black loyalist Richard Pierpoint, and heavyweight boxer Larry Gains.
“These new designations help to shed light on the collective and personal experiences of Black Canadians and their struggles for freedom, equality and justice,” the government said in a release.
Nadine Williams, an author, poet and art educator based in Toronto, nominated two of the four designations including the most glaring – the Enslavement of Black people in Canada. That saw more than 4,000 people of African descent – including men, women and children – who were reduced to property that could be bought and sold, exploited for their labour, and subjected to physical, sexual, psychological, and reproductive violence from 1629 to 1834.
While the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 made all people of African descent in Canada legally free, they were not considered equal and have gone on to face systemic racism, racial segregation, prejudice, and inequality in Canadian society.
Williams’ second nomination, the West Indian Domestic Scheme, is much less known.
“The West Indian domestic scheme is this really important thing to our history in that women from the Caribbean, the West Indies, was brought here,” she tells 680 NEWS. “But the rules around how they came were grossly unjust. Those were not the same rules that applied to people coming from other countries. So it was almost an extension of slavery.”
While the program was discontinued in 1968, some of the women who participated went on to make significant contributions to Canadian history such as the Honourable Jean Augustine, who became the first Black Canadian woman elected to the House of Commons in 1993. She is also responsible for nominating the other two designations, Pierpoint and Gains.
Pierpoint fought for Canada in the war of 1812 and was involved in the creation of the “Colored Corps” which was composed of men of African descent who helped protect Upper Canada.
Gains was considered one of the most talented boxers in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1920s and 30s he gained prominence by winning the Canadian, British Empire and World Colored Heavyweight titles. However, due to racial discrimination he was barred from competing for the English and World Heayweight titles as promoters maintained an unofficial colour barrier.
Williams points out that of the more than 2,000 designations by the government agency, only 40 represent African Canadians. She’s encouraging all Canadians to do their research and learn about Black history in Canada.
“There are quite a number of significant people that have not been designated yet, so this is also a call out to Canadians,” said Williams. “We are very much a part of the fabric of Canada and we deserve recognition.”
To nominate a person or historical event in your community, please visit the Parks Canada website for more information.