It happened today - July 9, 2016
Let’s hear it for Canada, land of freedom. Hip hip… silence? Yeah. I get that a lot. But Canada was founded in liberty and July 9 marks the date that we lived up to that ideal in a way many others tragically did not. Specifically, Upper Canada abolished slavery. In 1793. The first British colony to do so.
Now it may seem rather a cheap piece of sanctimony since there weren’t any slaves. But there were. Not a whole lot. It wasn’t South Carolina. But it also wasn’t a very populous place. And it was attracting Loyalists coming north with their slaves. It may seem an improbable “what if” for Canada to become a major slave-owning society. But it could have been nipped in the bud in Virginia nearly two centuries earlier if individuals had acted differently. And here they did.
Including John Graves Simcoe, the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada and a long-time abolitionist including as a British MP. It was he who pushed the measure against active resistance. And it is worth noting that the small Legislative Assembly (the elected lower house, as you doubtless recall) that passed the measure had at least six slave-owners among its 16 members. These were people who belonged to the same relatively narrow social circle. And yet they did vote to get rid of an institution from which their friends and colleagues benefited and that they supported.
It was also an institution of which the British government and the monarchy still approved. William Wilberforce was still more than a decade away from persuading Britain’s parliament to abolish the slave trade, and it was not until 40 years after Upper Canada acted that slavery was abolished throughout the empire through the Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies blah blah blah that received Royal Assent 28 August 1833 and took effect 1 August 1834. (Some former British colonies in what became the northern United States had moved to get rid of it as soon as they rebelled; others in what became the south went tragically in the other direction.)
It may disappoint purists, of whom I am generally one including on this issue, that Upper Canada’s An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Terms of Contracts for Servitude within this Province, whose title arguably needed editing, did not immediately abolish slavery. Instead it said those slaves already here would remain slaves until they died, but no new slaves could be brought in, and children born to female slaves after the act passed would be free at 25. But it must be said that abolition was a difficult cause and perhaps the compromise made passage possible at all.
It may disappoint others to learn that Simcoe, as a British MP, had described slavery as an offence against Christianity. How dare he be motivated by a transcendent creed emphasizing the dignity of all human beings in acting to abolish an institution that violated that dignity? Whereas I ask in genuine bewilderment how so many Christians could have defended slavery in so many parts of the world. And how many otherwise sincere believers in liberty could have done so including Thomas Jefferson.
Also, at the risk of being wildly politically incorrect, I have to note that slavery was practiced among many First Nations until its abolition throughout the British empire in 1834. And that it was not abolished in Lower Canada, a.k.a. Quebec, until August 1 1834 and thanks to the British Parliament.
Still, let’s cheer again. Canada was in many important ways long true to its tradition of freedom. But on this particular point Upper Canada’s government acted to preserve and enhance that heritage in a way that perhaps should not stand out but does even among the free societies of the Anglosphere.