Canada usually prefers to showcase its role in the Underground Railway rather than its history of slavery. Canadians like to speak at length about the role they played in the mid-1800s providing a safe haven for enslaved people fleeing plantations in the southern U.S. via the Underground Railroad. And though the story of the Underground Railroad is a significant moment in Canadian history that lasted for about 30 years, one must also not forget that for more than two hundred years, slavery happened in Canada, too.
As records show, slavery in what is now known as Canada began long before European traders and colonists arrived. At the time, indigenous people enslaved prisoners taken in war, but the Europeans introduced another form of slavery, where individuals were viewed as property that could be bought and sold. In other words, the buying, selling and enslavement of Black people were practiced by Europeans in New France — the first major settlement in what is now Canada — in the early 1600s until the territory was conquered by the British in 1759.
At the time the British took over, it is documented that out of a population of 60,000, around 4,000 were enslaved — about 7 percent of the colony. Many of them were indigenous slaves, usually known as Panis, and enslaved Black people who were largely transported there during the transatlantic slave trade. Indeed, when the British took over New France, it did continue with slavery and even renamed New France territory (now Canada) British North America. Soon, enslaved Black people replaced indigenous slaves.
Slavery in what is now Canada was just as barbarous as in other states. As a matter of fact, slaves were beaten, sexually abused, or even killed when they tried to escape. As experienced in other states, enslaved people in British North America presently Canada also rebelled against their conditions. One was Chloe Cooley, an enslaved woman of African descent whose brave resistance against her oppressors caught the attention of officials. The attempt to save her led to Canada abolishing slavery.
Cooley was at the time living in Queenston, Upper Canada when her owner, Loyalist enslaver Adam Vrooman, arranged to sell her to an American in New York in March 1793. Cooley screamed, resisted and tried to escape so Vrooman bound her with rope and gagged her before forcing her into a small boat with the help of his brother, Isaac. As people watched, Vrooman forcibly transported her across the Niagara River. Cooley tried to escape when they got to the American shore but she couldn’t.
Meanwhile, back in Canada, two men in the crowd who had watched what happened to Cooley reported the incident to Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe and two members of the Executive Council of the Province of Upper Canada. In an effort to save Cooley, Simcoe made attempts to bring her owner Vrooman to court, but the case was dismissed. Per law, Vrooman was acting within his legal right in selling Cooley as she was his personal property.
Thus, Simcoe started campaigning to change the law. Cooley’s case had at the time received a lot of public attention so Simcoe got wide support to impose limits on the importation of enslaved people with An Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves and to Limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this province, according to a report by Parks Canada.
Members of the House of Assembly and Legislative Council who were also enslavers opposed the legislation introduced in 1793. But the act eventually passed into law four months after Cooley was sold. Even though the new law did not save Cooley and did not free those already enslaved, it placed limits on indentures and also declared that children born after July 3, 1793, would be freed at age 25 and that their children would be free at birth.
“Further, it banned the importation of new enslaved people into the province, encouraging African American freedom seekers to travel north to Upper Canada. This, coupled with further legal precedent set by Attorney General John Beverley Robinson in 1819, helped extend the Underground Railroad into Upper Canada,” Parks Canada writes.
It’s not known what happened to Cooley after she was sold. Historians believe she died in the U.S. while enslaved.