Slavery existed in the Great White North. Art historian Charmaine Nelson says it’s a part of history most Canadians would prefer to sweep under the carpet, and there are few public artifacts by which to remember it. But one work of a young woman posing with a plate of tropical fruit — bearing the innocuous title Portrait of a Haitian Woman — offers a glimpse into a forgotten era, said Nelson, who is one of the laureates for this year’s Black History Month events in Montreal.Share
“If Canadians know about slavery at all, we’re usually patting ourselves on the back and saying we were so much better than those nasty people in the tropical colonies,” said Nelson, an associate professor at McGill University and author of five books. In fact, slavery was a fact of life in Canada under the French and British regimes, Nelson said. New France, and later Quebec, had an estimated 4,000 slaves from 1628 to 1800. About two-thirds were First Nations captives while a third were blacks, mostly from southern slave colonies.
Slavery was less widespread in Canada than in the tropics because northern agriculture did not require vast numbers of manual labourers, unlike southern sugar or cotton plantations, Nelson said. “It’s not that we were more benevolent. We still believed that some people were inhuman and worthy of enslavement. So the difference was that the uses of a slave were not as abundant, so we had a smaller population (of slaves),” she said. Unlike the southern United States, where slave quarters and other artifacts recount the ugly history of slavery, Canada has few visual reminders of human bondage. (Read more.)