Black History Month is a great time to learn about Canada’s rich, complex, and diverse history. Throughout the month of February, SEIU Healthcare has highlighted and celebrated some of the many achievements black Canadians have contributed, but are often still unknown.
I just learned the first black person to set foot on Canadian soil was named Mathieu de Costa, who landed on the shores of Nova Scotia sometime in-between 1603 to 1608. He was a free man and a translator who sailed with French explorer Pierre Dugua. Mathieu could speak more than four different languages, including Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese.
Mathieu de Costa
The first black person to live in Canada was Olivier Le Jeune, a slave from Madagascar who was bought to Quebec by his British owner. By 1759 there were nearly 4,000 slaves in the French colony. Less than 1,200 were black, and the rest were aboriginal. Slavery was not a big part of the Canadian economy. Free blacks also settled in Quebec after serving in the French Army and Navy. Others were indentured servants who voluntarily moved to the new world.
Oliver Le Jeune
Canada’s black population grew after the American Revolution. In 1767 there were only a few hundred black people living in Nova Scotia, but after the American Revolution that number swelled to 6,000, including both free and enslaved people. Unfortunately racism throughout Nova Scotia was so bad that over 1,000 migrated to Africa and established Freetown, the current capital of the West African country Sierre Leone.
The black population grew again in 1796 after nearly 600 free black Jamaicans moved to Nova Scotia. But many didn’t like the cold, harsh winter and departed for the warmer climate in Freetown in Sierre Leone.
In the early 1800s the abolitionist movement began to gain momentum, advocating for greater restrictions on slavery. But by the time slavery was abolished in Canada in 1833, only a minority of Canadian blacks were slaves. By 1837, Canadian black men were given the right to vote. This was in stark contrast to the United States where tens of thousands of black people fled to Canada to escape slavery and the country’s strict race laws.
Our full Canadian history is made up of many stories which we’ve yet to discover, explore, and learn about going beyond the month of February.