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The Long History of African Americans Escaping to Canada

Trump's racist rhetoric have you thinking of moving to Canada? Black people have had a rough time doing that over the centuries.

Stacey Newman/Shutterstock.com

Many Americans are suddenly interested in moving to Canada, to judge by the unusually high number of Google searches on the topic. People are looking to flee the U.S. to our upstairs neighbor in fear of a possible Donald Trump presidency. A number of high-profile African Americans are ready to move: Al Sharpton wants out, Former Cosby Show star and current The View host Raven-Symoné, too. And on the more serious side, Kyle Lydell Canty, an African-American man, sought political asylum in Canada last year to escape police violence in the United States. Canada rejected him.

Canty’s story is instructional. Everyone wants to move to Canada to escape a new, even more visibly racist America. But racism doesn't disappear when you cross over the U.S. border. I guess would-be escapees haven’t figured that Whitey still gon’ White no matter whether the flag displays stars and stripes or a maple leaf. In fact, Canada has a long and complicated history with black people seeking to escape U.S. oppression, and it’s not always been a happy one.

The Underground Railroad did provide paths for black people in Southern slavery strongholds to migrate to safe havens in Ontario in the 19th century. But Canada had already established itself as welcoming to black people in the century prior: During the Revolutionary War, British lords were enticing enslaved Africans to join them in Canada. They did this not because they thought black lives mattered, however, but because they needed them for labor. The recruitment was part of a plan to undermine the growing U.S. plantation-based economy juggernaut.

Black migrants to Canada have been screwed over many times. The first group who made it to the country, the Black Loyalists who settled in Nova Scotia in the late 18th century, were no longer in chattel slavery, but they didn’t walk into a land of equality, either. As this history from the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre recounts:

The Loyalist colonies were not equipped to maintain the influx of thousands of new citizens. A priority system was established to serve the newest citizens to British North America. White officers and Gentlemen were served first in terms of rations and land grants. Ordinary Privates and Laboring people, among the Whites, had to wait. The Blacks, coming up last, rarely received the land or rations promised to them.

With a population of more than 2,500, Birchtown, Nova Scotia became the largest settlement of free blacks outside Africa. There were 649 male heads of families in Birchtown during the muster of 1784. Out of bureaucratic incompetence and racial inequality, only 184 heads of families received the promised crown land. Their granted lands measured and average of 34 acres. Other Black Loyalists settled communities at Port Mouton (Later Liverpool); Brindy Town (Near Digby); Tusket & Greenville (Near Yarmouth); Little Tracadie (Guysbourough County); Preston (Halifax County), Annapolis Royal, Halifax and Saint John, New Brunswick

Later, in the early 19th century, the British Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane issued a proclamation again inviting enslaved black people to Canada to escape the War of 1812. Roughly 2,000 people, named the Black Refugees, took advantage of this calling. But they didn’t fare much better upon reaching Nova Scotia than their predecessors.

The descendants of the Black Loyalists and Black Refugees still live in Nova Scotia today, but they live in almost the same conditions of inequality as black people in the U.S. For example, rates of unemployment and low-incomes for African Nova Scotians far exceed that of other races.   

(CityLab/African Nova Scotian Affairs)
(CityLab/African Nova Scotian Affairs)

Black people in other parts of Canada today aren’t living in a racism-free utopia, either. In Toronto, black people are far more likely to get stopped by police than whites, according to a 2012 Toronto Star investigation. And there’s been enough concern about police killing black people in Toronto and Ontario that Black Lives Matter groups have started springing up. Comedian Hannibal Buress even has a routine about getting harassed by police in Montreal over jaywalking.

Even putting all that history aside, black people, and people of color in general, still might want to think twice about making that move to Canada today, despite Trump’s bigotry. The L.A. Times talked to a few Canadians about how they would feel if a sudden wave of American immigrants came their way. Here’s what Canadian Elaine Munro said in response:

I would rather have a bunch of Americans than all of these Muslims [the Canadian government is] bringing in,” she said. “I am totally against that. They’re taking jobs that Canadians have. The [Canadian] government is setting them up better than how Canadians are being looked after. Healthcare is being overrun by [Syrian refugees].”

Racism has no boundaries. It even exists in Canada. Not even Drake can save us from it.

Top image: Stacey Newman/Shutterstock.com

Correction: Due to an editor’s error, a previous version of the charts above misspelled Nova Scotia.

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