150+ Canadians Day 38: Anti-Slavery Legislation

Pictured: The Act to Limit Slavery In Upper Canada, 1793

Dedicated to the many who contributed to peace by resisting slavery and arguing for anti-slavery legislation.

Abolitionism soon made its way to British North America in the late 18th century, where a number of legal challenges were made against the institution of slavery. By the early 1800s, Lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia had attempted to abolish slavery but failed. Bills were introduced in Lower Canada in 1793 and in 1801, but neither bill was passed. During those same years, bills to legalize enslavement were presented in New Brunswick (1801) and Nova Scotia (1808), but they were met with opposition and were not passed. Many were involved in these legal battles and while we cannot mention them all here, here are a few notables:

Chloe Cooley, regularly struggled against her “owner,” Sergeant Adam Vrooman. She protested her enslavement by behaving in “an unruly manner,” stealing property entrusted to her on Sergeant Vrooman’s behalf, refusing to work and leaving the property without permission. As rumours of coming abolition reached Vrooman, he and many other slave owners tried to sell their slaves in New York state. On March 14, 1793 Chloe was bound and thrown in a boat to be taken across the river and sold in the United States. She resisted fiercely; Peter Martin, a free Black man, noticed her screams and struggles and brought a witness, William Grisley, to report the incident to Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe. The legal battles surrounding incidents like these precipitated the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada in 1793.

Those who have been enslaved may henceforth look forward with certainty to the emancipation of their offspring.” – John Graves Simcoe

Simcoe is seen by many in Southern Ontario—as a founding figure in Canadian history for his role in the building of Upper Canada and in opposing slavery. In 1793, Simcoe and Attorney General John White introduced a bill to end slavery in that colony. However, it met strong opposition, since many of the members of both houses of the legislature enslaved Black people or were from slaveholding families. The amended compromise was the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canadathe first piece of legislation passed in the British colonies to limit slavery which did not abolish the practice nor emancipate a single enslaved person. Instead, importing enslaved people became illegal, and a time frame was set in place to gradually phase out slaveholding.

Between 1791 and 1808, enslavement was challenged by Nova Scotia’s Chief Justice Thomas Strange and his successor Sampson Blowers. When slave owners came before them seeking to reclaim enslaved people who had fled their bond, the judges put the burden of proof on the slave owners, asking them to prove ownership of the enslaved person and to prove that they had the legal right to purchase that person. Owners who appeared before these judges were usually unable to satisfy the court in that regard. Among other factors, the strong opposition of the courts, along with the slave owners’ inability to defend existing slavery laws, contributed to slavery gradually dying out.

Proper anti-slavery legislation, the Slavery Abolition Act, was passed by the British Parliament and received Royal Assent on Aug. 28, 1833, and came into effect throughout the British Empire on August 1st, 1834. The Act made enslavement officially illegal in every province and freed the last remaining enslaved people in Canada. August 1st is celebrated across many former British Colonies, and in Ontario, as Emancipation Day.

Got a name in mind? Contribute to the list!Send us your suggested names on the Contact Us

Want to get 150+ Canadians straight to your inbox? Subscribe here.