A man rowing a boat on Lake Ontario flagged down a passing ship on its way to Canada and put three passengers on board. They were escaped slaves. For the next few hours, the men huddled on deck in wide-eyed terror, fearful that slave-catchers would overtake the ship. But when the captain put these refugees down on a beach in Canada, he saw them transformed. They came to life, he recalled later. Their eyes lit up. They laughed, embraced and kissed the ground. They were free!

Those men were part of a steady flow of refugees running from the United States to Canada in the early 19th century. Slavery was outlawed in Canada in 1833. It was another 30 years before it ended in the United States. During the years between, slaves had only to cross the border to be free.

The United States – like Canada – started off as a British colony, but the Americans rebelled in 1775, declaring that “all men are created equal.” The Americans won the war and, true to their word, created the first democratic republic in the modern world. But not every state in the federation shared that liberty with slaves. Like Canada, the northern states moved gradually toward abolition. In the South, however – before the invention of farm machinery – huge numbers of slaves were needed to cultivate cotton and sugar. The United States was anything but “united” on the question of slavery.

Janet Uren (WordImage Inc.)
Maggie Fawcett, Claire Brodie, Parks Canada Agency, Multiculturalism Branch / Department of Canadian Heritage

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