We know little about the Black people once enslaved in Upper Canada. Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society, is trying to change that
Natasha Henry wants us to know about the people of African descent once held in bondage in Upper Canada. She wants us to know their names and recognize their personal struggles. She wants, a couple of hundred years later, to finally humanize the people who’ve often gone nameless and faceless in our written history.
The problem? Henry, the president of the Ontario Black History Society, has very little to work with—almost no first-hand accounts. So, through her doctoral research at York University, she pores over countless government records, church registers, newspapers and other yellowed documents in search of any little nugget that can help her piece together who was enslaved in Upper Canada until the British Empire abolished the practice in 1834.
I spoke with Henry about her quest to learn more about these oft-forgotten people, and why the legacy of slavery is so frequently left out of Canada’s history.
How did you become interested in history?
What drew me to history was my experience as a young Black person growing up in Toronto, attending public school and not learning much about the Black presence in Canada. The integration of Black history into Canadian curriculums is still very heavily weighted on the African-American experience. So that gap in our education system led to a personal pursuit to learn more. And once I found more information—essentially, I just couldn’t stop digging.
What sparked your curiosity about this specific part of Black Canadian history?
It started when I was researching my book Emancipation Day. And then when I went to apply for my Ph.D., I knew that this was the opportunity for me to really dig deeper into this history, and specifically look at what we now call Ontario, because there have been more in-depth studies on slavery in the Maritimes and Quebec, but not a deep dive into the institution here.
How do you find these stories?
Well, it’s a lot of archival research. There aren’t any historical collections dedicated to the Black people who were once enslaved in Upper Canada. So you have to search the personal records of the enslavers or colonial government records, military records, church records, newspapers. The information is just scattered. In order to address the ongoing gap, I decided to put the archives I found into a digital repository, which will be available when I’m finished with my studies. It will be open-access, so that anyone can learn about the history of Black slavery in Upper Canada.
You’ll be hosting a talk on Chloe Cooley and other Black people who were enslaved in the Niagara region at the end of the month. Why is Cooley such a seminal figure in early Black Canadian history?
Chloe Cooley was a Black woman who was enslaved in the Niagara area in the 18th century. In March of 1793, her enslaver, Adam Vrooman, and two other settlers forcefully tied Cooley up so they could sail her across the Niagara River and sell her in New York. There had been whispers, both among the enslavers and those who were enslaved, that Lt.-Gov. John Graves Simcoe was going to abolish slavery. Vrooman was one of many people who held slaves and was trying to avert any financial loss, should slavery be abolished.
Two witnesses saw Cooley cry out and resist the violence against her, and they reported the scene to colonial officials. Vrooman was accused of disturbing the peace, but the charges were ultimately dropped.
However, the incident did come to the attention of Lt.-Gov. Simcoe. Shortly after, Simcoe and the attorney general used the incident to introduce legislation that would have abolished slavery in Upper Canada. But because about half of the politicians themselves held slaves, they were opposed to that. Essentially, the compromise was legislation that would gradually abolish slavery over about three generations.
Do we know what happened to Cooley?
We don’t know anything about her after that day. But here’s this woman who’s facing this violence at the hands of three white men, bound with rope and put in a boat. All she’s trying to do is survive. All she’s trying to do is resist. When you look at that, you wonder if she was able to experience or enjoy even a little bit of the freedom that she herself helped bring about.
As someone who’s spent a lot of time thinking about Cooley in recent years, what was it like to see her story commemorated in a recent Heritage Minute?
It feels good. There are people who shared her story before I did. People continue to add to the nuances of her story and contextualize it in the wider history of slavery here in Canada. But we don’t have any actual images of people who were enslaved here. So to interpret her story through these historical documents and present it in this visual representation further humanizes her. That visual image is powerful for people to see even, if only for a minute.
One of the people who reported Vrooman to the authorities was a free Black man named Peter Martin, who was actually working for Vrooman at the time. What do we know about him?
He was a Black Loyalist. These were Black men who were enslaved in the United States but fought for the British in exchange for their freedom. And what’s interesting about him is that his enslaver was actually a military officer by the name of John Butler. So, Peter Martin likely remained his slave while also serving as one of his soldiers.
Here you have this man who recently obtained his freedom, but his spouse, Pat, and his two young children, George and Jane, remained enslaved. Just think about the trauma and the pain of living through that. This was the reality for a number of enslaved families in Upper Canada.
Martin eventually succeeded in freeing his son. His brother had also fought for the British. After he died, Martin petitioned to acquire the land grant his brother was given for his service. In his petition, Martin explained that he wanted to sell his and his brother’s land to raise enough money to purchase his son’s freedom, which he did for £40.
Unfortunately, we don’t know what happened to Jane. We don’t know what happened to Pat. But George, the son, later served in the Coloured Corps during the War of 1812. He was born enslaved and, after being freed, fought to keep that freedom.
What other stories have moved you?
Well, there’s the story of a man named Mink. Around the time of the American Revolution, he was kidnapped by American Patriots—the revolutionaries who rejected British rule—and sold into slavery. But then he escaped and made his way into Upper Canada to serve in the military. He wanted to secure his freedom. However, he found that his enslaver was now a captain of a militia in Upper Canada, and he was re-enslaved. And he continued to be held in bondage when the war was over.
Mink petitioned his case, and so did his wife, who had actually been granted her freedom for also serving with the British. But he didn’t succeed. He remained enslaved despite his military service. Johan Jost Herkimer, Mink’s enslaver, said he would only free him if the government compensated him for his loss. And that didn’t happen.
So, all of this just shows you the complications of enslavement. What it looked like, what it meant for family and kinship relationships, and how slavery persisted because people wanted it to persist. There are, unfortunately, a lot of sad endings to some of these stories. Nonetheless, we hear their voices, and we see how they navigated their circumstances.
Why do you think we know so little about these people?
We don’t know a lot for several reasons. Enslaved people were often treated as faceless and nameless in older historical accounts. And historians in the past would similarly downplay the significance of slavery, because we didn’t have the same numbers as there were in the United States. There wasn’t a plantation economy based on slavery.
It has also been excised from the national narrative because it complicates the more widely known part of Canadian history, in which the country welcomed Black freedom seekers coming from the U.S. At some point, some people enslaved in what became Canada fled to the northern United States in pursuit of freedom. All of this very much speaks to the process of writing history, and whose stories get told, and whose don’t.
Do children learn more about this history in school today?
There has been some change. There’s definitely more focus on Black History Month, and there are more resources available to educators. But it’s still often left up to individual teachers to take the initiative to teach this history because there aren’t any specific learning expectations in the Ontario curriculum regarding the 400-year presence of Black people in what we now call Canada.
Why is it important for people to learn these stories?
It humanizes the victims of slavery. Even here in what we now call Canada, where people often like to downplay the significance of slavery, it was brutal. It subjugated people. It stole their freedom and personhood. But they were still people. They were human beings: men, women and children. What were their lives like? What were their thoughts or their experiences? What were their challenges? I’m asking different kinds of questions that really centre the lives of those who were enslaved, instead of objectifying them like some historians have in the past.