Slavery existed within Canada, and it’s important to acknowledge its legacy.
I grew up in this township. Throughout my school years, my classmates and I would hear stories about what was called the Wilberforce Settlement. I was told this community of Black farmers was originally home to families who had escaped the horrors of slavery in the Southern United States. Honestly, it felt good to be on the right side of history. It felt good. I could be proud in the knowledge that my community’s legacy was one of freedom and hope for those who had been oppressed. Slavery was a tragedy that happened in another country, far away. Thank goodness slavery did not exist here in Canada.
Unfortunately, when we become attached to being on the right side of history, the complicated and messy bits can get lost or glossed over.
When Canadians talk about slavery, we often point with pride to the role our country played in the mid‐1800s as a safe haven for enslaved Black people escaping captivity via the Underground Railroad. This, however, is only part of the story. Like the United States, Canada has its own history of slavery – and it is a history that should not be forgotten.
On the land where Shining Waters Regional Council sits, the enslavement of Black and Indigenous people was entirely legal until 1793. At this point, laws were passed that prohibited the import of enslaved labour. However, those who were already enslaved were not freed and children who were born to enslaved Black people were not emancipated until the age of 25. Those who were enslaved were forced to clear land, construct buildings and become domestic servants. They suffered physical, mental, spiritual and sexual abuse at the hands of their oppressors, often for generations. All of this was endorsed by the colonial governments of the time.
It was not until 1819 that the government of Upper Canada declared all Black residents to be free. Slavery was not abolished throughout the British Empire, including the whole of British North America, until August 1, 1834 — less than three decades before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
However, freedom from slavery does not mean freedom from discrimination and racism. Many Black people remained indentured servants for years after the abolition of slavery, receiving no financial compensation for their work. Being free did not necessarily mean being welcome and being treated equally.
During the War of 1812, a militia unit called the Captain Runchy’s Company of Coloured Men was created from free Black men and indentured Black servants. After the war, these militiamen were offered plots of land by the government, tasked with guarding Upper Canada against potential attack by American forces in the area between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. This community became known as the Wilberforce Settlement.
So, although there were likely some formerly enslaved people who joined the community after escaping through the Underground Railroad, these free militiamen were the original settlers of the area surrounding the Oro African Church. The land provided to these families was something earned through military service, not the result of a community happy to welcome escaped refugees from Southern plantations. The narrative I had been happy to believe for years was wrong.
This is one of the ways systemic racism works, and it’s been going on forever.
Despite their military service during some of the most pivotal campaigns in the war, the plots of land offered by the government to these Black veterans were next to impossible to farm. The soil was bad. Crops did not thrive.
So, this feel good story I had been told about my community being a sanctuary for those experiencing injustices perpetrated in faraway places — that was not even close to the full truth. The Wilberforce Settlement is also an early example of the ongoing, systemic racism experienced by Black citizens in Canada.
After years of struggling with bad soil (and some men leaving to fight in the American Civil War), by 1900 the Wilberforce Settlement was almost entirely abandoned. Looking back, I wonder why it was never questioned, at any point during my school years, “If it was so great living here, why do I never see any Black people in my community?”
Because it felt good to be on the right side of history…and that was good enough.
White fragility is a powerful thing.
Today (August 1st), Communities of Faith within the United Church of Canada are encouraged to commemorate Emancipation Day and the abolition of slavery within the British Empire — including the land we now call Canada.
You can learn more about how you and/or your Community of Faith can actively engage in anti-racism work, by going to the new United Against Racism website. There are links to resources for further learning, and invitations to take action against systemic racism in both local communities and the broader Canadian context.
It felt good to be able to point to our Southern neighbour and say, “Thank goodness that never happened here! Thank goodness I come from a place that is on the right side of history.”
Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?
But the truth is never that simple, and truth is more important than protecting a narrative that makes some of us feel good.
Bri-anne Swan is the Minister for Social & Ecological Justice and Network Support at Shining Waters Regional Council.