Take Liberty.com
Don't Ask Permission - Just Take It

Ending of Slavery in Canada and Haiti
by   Richard   Rieben
Written – 1976
In considering the after-effects of slavery in Canada there is a quotation in Winks which reminds one of the rule of the predominantly ex-slave population in Haiti: "Negroes in Canada were often responsible for their own plight, since they by no means made use of all the channels of opportunity or all the roads to progress and all the sources of strength open to them."(1) The question is whether this is in fact a dominant feature of all ex-slave populations. And, on the basis of such a question, one might further ask whether it is realistic to expect that ex-slaves, with their particular and distinct cultural heritage (which infects subsequent economic, political and socal aspects), to become readily assimilated even given the capabilities of the ex-slave- holding society to assimilate them.

In Canada the Negroes, according to Winks, "wanted nothing more than to assimilate - in a society which did not value assimilation, indeed, in a society which persistently denied that there was a cultural norm against which assimilation could be measured.... There was no clear form of Canadianism by which Negroes could show their loyalty."(2)

A similar situation might be seen in respect to Haiti, given that one sees the nation of Haiti as essentially the embodiment of an ex-slave population in the context of a non-slave world: "Haiti suffered ... from ostracism by the family of nations ... partly because Haiti, which won independence as early as 1804, was a 'Black Republic' whose independence resulted from a slave revolt and hence constituted a threat to the European nations which held slave colonies in the Caribbean, and also to the United States, where emancipation was not achieved until 1865."(3) This may seem to be stretching things a bit and yet, qua nation, Haiti has a long history of seeking recognition of its worth in a kind of quest for status among the "family of nations." This quest has been no easy matter for the Haitians because they, as a people, have little common ground. "By the end of the eighteenth century many slaves had lost their tribal identity, because the planters, as a precaution against insurrections, preferred their labour force to be of mixed origins.",(4) "The first Haitians of many tribes and languages of Africa, and naturally lacked the cement of a shared culture, religion, language, or, as time went on, even - as peasants and freed men - the group socialization which might have been conveyed by a modern colonial experience.... Mistrust was and is the habitual response of Haitians of all classes to all other Haitians."(5)

One will note that the Canadian Negroes had much the same problem insofar as lacking a common base: "Widely dispersed nationally, if clustered locally, brought to Canada in separate waves of immigration which provided little common experience..."(6) "...the Canadian Negro ... was divided, withdrawn, without a substantial body of shared historical experiences; and until the late 1960's Canadian Negroes remained stratified within by class lines virtually of their own creation."(7) "Canadian Negroes not only failed to unite, they viewed black unity as a too visible danger."(8)

The localized, stratified aspect of Canadian Negro society finds a parallel in Haiti: "Like the other former slave colonies of the Caribbean, prerevolutionary Haiti was highly stratified."(9) "Until recently, to call a peasant a Haitian was to insult him grossly; a man had very specific ties to a locale, and no supralocal or national links to which he gave real credence."(10)

One can find further parallels between Haiti and Canada in the area of discrimination. In Canada in the 1850's "hotels in Hamilton, Windsor, Chatham, and London refused blacks admission, and they could not purchase cabin-class tickets on the Chatham steamer."(11) "In 1914 ... Negroes in Saint Joan were refused admission to theaters, black men at the western borders were told to return to Oklahoma, and Windsor bars were opening 'jungle rooms' for Negro patrons."(12) All of this was taking place in Canada even though "in British North America, the Negroes remained equal in the eyes of the law. .."(13) and even granting that "freedom under the lion's paw had very real compensations. Negroes were not lynched, they need not step off the sidewalk to let a white man pass by, and they rode the same buses as everyone else did."(14) With fewer legal compensations, the Haitian blacks also suffered(ed) from white discrimination. "No Jim-Crow laws... bar Negroes and mulattoes from public places. But an inexorable economic law bars a disproportionate number from the first-class hotels, restaurants, and residential areas; from the best seats in theatres; from the higher ranks in the armed services; from executive and managerial posts; from the professions."(15)

The two societies have a distinctive bond: that of French cultural influence (though, of course, this does not apply throughout Canada). Circa 1789, in Haiti, "gens de couleur were not to be addressed as sieur or dame, or to have the same surnames as white families; they must dress differently and occupy special seats in theatres and churches and on boats; intermarriage was forbidden and so was travel to France."(16) In New France (Canada) a similar pre-abolition race distinction was made with a typically, upper-class, prerevolutionary, French cast: "Subservience was a characteristic of society, and slavery was merely the ne plus ultra of the natural order of things."(17)

The form of slavery which had existed in the two societies was, however, decidedly distinct. "Slavery, if not dependent upon, certainly thrived upon one-crop, mass-production, gang-labor economies."(18) In Canada, because of the "european diplomacy, patterns of trade, dependence upon the beaver, economically unprofitable seigniories which could not use gang labor effectively, and the persistent authority of the Roman Catholic church,"(19) slavery did not thrive; in fact the "social structure (of New France] had relatively little use for the slave beyond the purely utilitarian one of providing domestic help."(20) Discrimination itself seemed to de-emphasize the role of slavery: "Negroes were inferior not because they had been slaves but because they were Negroes."(21) In Haiti, on the other hand, slavery thrived through the institution of the plantation "with its heavy capital investment [and] its concentration on single commercial crops."(22) "Each plantation was a political microcosm in which the slaves were ruled by an absolute despot, their owner."(23) "On the eve of the French Revolution ... the slaves [in Haiti] were worth more than E2 million ... They worked on more than 3,000 plantations of coffee, 3,000 of indigo, 800 of sugar, and 800 of cotton."(24)

The abolution of slavery was brought about largely by whites in Canada and by the slaves themselves in Haiti. In Haiti, "a struggle between conservative and liberal whites for control of the machinery of government seemed ... to provide an opportunity for freemen to gain equality ... [and] ... the slaves were... compelled to strike their own blow for freedom. On 14 August 1791 ... certain Negro leaders adopted definite plans for an uprising against all slave-holders. By the end of the month the revolt was spreading throughout the rich northern plain. The whites were massacred and their houses and plantations were burnt."25 The French government, seeking to quell the revolts and to regain and maintain control over this most valuable of colonies, sent a commission to Haiti which "alienated the whites by trying to put into effect a French decree of 14 April 1792 granting freemen full equality, and both white and coloured slave-holders by proclaiming, in the summer 1793, the abolition of slavery."(26) Although the proclamation was issued by whites, it was the incorrigible rebelliousness of the slaves which brought it about.

In Canada, on the other hand, "the first province to take action against slavery, and only one to legislate against it [in 1793], was Upper Canada."(27) "Outside Upper Canada slavery was not abolished, but by 1800 the courts had placed effective limitations on its expansion."(28) "The heroes of abolition in British North American were its judges, men who by judicial legislation moved against an institution that still retained sufficient public support in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Lower Canada, to prevent popularly elected assemblies from abolishing slavery themselves."(29) "The combination of legislative and judicial action had so severely limited its growth, applicability, and confidence as virtually to end the practice by the 1820's throughout the provinces."(30) "In short, no one needed slavery, and while many would tolerate it, they were not prepared to resist in the government or the Courts."(31) "Slavery was abolished throughout the British colonies by an Act of the Imperial Parliament passed on August 28, 1833, to take effect on August 1 of the next year."(32)

Yet, despite such differences as the intensity of the institution of slavery (i.e., its form) and the origin of the impetus to abolition, both Haitian and Canadian societies have proven in subsequent years to be strongly anti-slavery ... a stand which all facets of each stratified society maintain with a common vigor. But the point to be made is that, despite this stand, racial and class distinctions (and not only those related to the institution of slavery) keep both societies from working wholly as units with a full regard for individuals qua individuals (vs. qua members of distinct groupings). Larger countries with greater cultural diversity such as Canada or the United States can accomodate a great deal of cultural factioning without clogging the overriding concerns of the nation, but there is a decided limited to how much factioning any nation can take and still retain a "national interest." Canada has, perhaps, never had sufficient unity to understand the debilitating effect of racial and class distinctions constituting the basis of closed factions. In the United States the individual has been historically and effectively the base closed faction with lines of class somewhat blurred and lines of race non-distinct (or shifting in that direction til quite recently).

The assimilation of a class or group cannot be accomplished qua class or group - the very distinction defies the principle of assimilation. The example of the West Indians in Canada demonstrates the racial and class factioning which is inherent to both Canada and Haiti: "While they retained much of their interisland sense of competition, they tended to bank together in Canada and to hold themselves superior to other black men.... Forming clubs of their own, attending Anglican churches, turning out to the cricket pitch for their sport, opposing integration, demanding freer West Indian immigration, and supporting Back-to-Africa movements, they wanted to see the Negro districts remain distinct."(33)

In Haiti the class structure is more rigid, the black and mulatto racial distinctions are effective as broad social barriers (witness the "War of the Castes," 1800-1), and the concentration of population serves to intensify the same principle of factioning as exemplified by the West Indians in Canada. Slavery, even in a post-slavery perspective, is no longer a relevant issue in either Canada or Haiti; racial and class distinction is. And, to this, slavery cannot even be said to be the root.

1 Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada (New York: Yale University Press, 1971), p. 480
2 Ibid. p. 482
3 Rayford Logan, Hatiti and the Dominican Republic (New York: Oxford Press. 1968). p. 196
4 Ibid., p. 19
5 Robert L. Rotberg, Haiti: the Politics of Squalor (Boston: Hougton Mifflin Company, 1971), p. 18
6 Winks, op. cit., p. 478
7 Winks, op. cit., p. 477
8 Winks, op. cit., p. 478
9 Rotberg, op cit., p. 271
10 Rotberg, op. cit., p. 18
11 Winks, op. cit., p. 248
12 Winks, op. cit., p. 332
13 Winks. op. cit., p. 251
14 Winks, op. cit., p. 465
15 Logan, op. cit., p. 16
16 Logan, op. cit., p. 22
17 Winks, op. cit., p. 17
18 Winks, op. cit., p. 20
19 Winks, op. cit., p. 18
20 Winks, op. cit., p. 22
21 Winks, op. cit., p. 20-1
22 Marvin Harris, Pattern of Race In the Americas (New York: Walker & Co., 1964), p. 24
23 Ibid.
24 Logan, op. cit., p. 86
25 Logan, op. cit., p. 89
26 Logan, op. cit., p. 91
27 Winks, op. cit.. p. 96
28 Winks, op. cit., p. 99
29 Winks, op. cit., p. 110
30 Winks, op. cit., p. 110
31 Winks, op. cit., p. 112
32 Winks. op. cit., p. 111
33 Winks, op. cit., p. 334


copyright © 2005 by Richard G. Rieben