Discrimination & Race Relations

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Excerpt from The Long Road Continues

In the early 18th century, when the planked walls of Fort du Pontchartrain du Detroit stood formidably along the strait, facing the French farms and Indigenous settlements that dotted the southern shore, people of African descent were here. This is their story.

From the earliest European settlement in the Detroit River region, Black men and women—stolen from their homes in Africa, the Caribbean, or Latin America—lived and worked in bondage alongside their masters. According to historian Afua Cooper, the keeping of slaves was a commonplace part of French settlement. In 1701, when Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac staked his claim on the north shore, he brought with him “several dozen slaves, both Panis [Indigenous] and Africans, from Montreal to build the fort.” Fort Detroit itself was a product of the fur trade, fuelled by the fashions of French noblemen across the sea. The coureur de bois who roamed the forests of Michigan, Ohio, and Upper Canada, also kept Black slaves, albeit few in number, who worked the trade with their owners.

By the late 1740s, a small French agricultural settlement had sprouted opposite Fort Detroit, alongside a Jesuit mission that was proselytizing the neighbouring Huron village. Many of these habitants, who carved out ribbon farms fronting the water, owned slaves of African descent. In New France, slavery was governed by Code Noir, a set of rules intended to validate the practice by placing it under the moral authority of state Catholicism. “Excessive” brutality against their human property was forbidden, and both “natural” marriages and informal unions between slaves were recognized by the church. Devout slaveholders often had their slaves baptized. According to historian Tiya Miles, while there was not uniform enforcement of Code Noir, slaves were afforded a “small measure” of legal protection and avenue for social inclusion through the church under the French system.

Along the Detroit River in particular, Windsor-Essex historian E.J. Lajeunesse claimed that slavery was fairly common during the French colonial era, most often employed as “house servants or drudges in the fur trade.” 33 slaves are enumerated in the 1750 Detroit census. By 1773, slaves on the south shore were also included in the count: 74 in Fort Detroit, 9 across the river. Nearly ten years later, there are some 35 slaves held on the Canadian side. While whether these were Black or Indigenous slaves is not specified, Miles, however, reveals that Indigenous slaves outnumbered Blacks nearly twice over in the Great Lakes region, perhaps due to the racialized fear of transporting Black slaves only to lose them to the shocks of a new, colder climate. Somewhat paradoxically, slaves of African descent were also costlier than Indigenous slaves, as they were considered to be hardier, less susceptible to disease, and less capable of escape and survival outside of their slave owners’ communities. Escaping was difficult for enslaved people of African descent: unlike Indigenous or Panis slaves, “they didn’t know the land, they weren’t allowed to see maps or discus routes, and any dark-skinned person traveling without an owner was suspected of being a runaway.” As such, most enslaved people of African descent lived and laboured in relative isolation—part of their captors’ households, but frequently having few or no other Black men or women residing with or near them.

There are few recorded details about what the lives and experiences of these early Black slaves would have been. Research on the nature of slavery in the north can offer just clues. Perhaps due to their relatively small numbers, their high economic value, and the nature of French settler life, slaves often lived in the same house as their owners, eating the same food. As mentioned, many were baptized—and received owners or their relatives as godparents, or even, the name of their owners’ family. Afua Cooper puts it this way: “The paternalistic nature of slavery…had as much to do with the scarcity of labour in a growing colony. […] Yet, the economy, largely based on the fur trade, did not demand large gangs of labourer” as a plantation-based agricultural system would.”

After the surrender of Canada to the British in 1760, slavery of Africans and Indigenous peoples continued unabated. The relief that slavery would be maintained under British rule is palatable in a letter by Pierre François Rigault, Marquis de Vaudreuil and Governor of Canada, dated September 9, 1760. He informed the French Commandant at Detroit, François Marie Picoté, that he had been forced to capitulate with General Amherst’s army the previous day, as the exhausted and under-resourced French troops had been surrounded by three British armies. Rigault provided assurances that advantageous terms had been negotiated on behalf of the French colonists who would remain in the region, including guarantees of property rights, religious freedom, trading privileges, and this: “They keep their Negro or Panis slaves but are obliged to give back those taken from the English.”

It is commonly held that slavery was abolished in Upper Canada with Lieutenant Governor Sir John Graves Simcoe’s 1793 Act against Slavery. However, the full title of this legislation is actually: “An Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves and to Limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province.” It merely banned further important of slaves into Upper Canada. Existing slaves were held in bondage until the time of their death or manumission. Children born into slavery as of 1793 would be freed by age twenty-five. Slavery was not totally abolished in British North America until the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect on August 1, 1834. Until then, enslaved men and women—both Black and Indigenous—were the unseen colonial labour force that helped build the twin communities that would one day grow into the cities of Windsor and Detroit.

Revisiting our Founding Fathers

In modern-day Windsor, our streets and historic buildings proudly signal our early French and English heritage. Askin Boulevard. The Francois-Baby House. Labadie Road. Elsewhere in the world, contested memories and competing historical narratives are giving rise to difficult conversations about how those who upheld systems of slavery are memorialized in our towns and cities. Statues have come down, streets and buildings have been renamed. In the Detroit River region, public memory includes very little of slavery—save for the narrative that region was the gateway to freedom to Blacks in bondage in the deep South. This, however, is a selective memory—carefully and conveniently failing to confront the reality that Windsor’s founding fathers were not a type of moral, ahistorical anomaly. Like the settlers across the continent, they too were slave-owners.

One contributing factor to the dearth of early slave narratives today in Windsor-Essex is a consequence of the system of slavery itself. There are no first-person records remaining to tell the stories of these Black men and women, rather, all that is known of them comes from the point of view of the slave-owning class. In that perspective, these people were property and they are documented accordingly: inventories, wills and records of sale, scant mentions in captors’ letters and diaries, church records, advertisements, or criminal proceedings. What we can learn about their lives we must learn through the stories of their owners—our forefathers.

Antoine Descomptes Labadie settled on the present-day site of Hiram Walkers & Sons Ltd. distillery in 1769. Labadie’s business ventures included a farm, a grist mill, and a windmill, in addition to extensive trade with local Indigenous groups. According to a retrospective article profiling the “First Labadie” in the December 1932 edition of the Border Cities Star, Labadie fathered 33 children with three wives, leading to “thousands” of descendants across Canada and the United States. Labadie was an established slaver; he owned both African and Indigenous slaves who worked alongside him in properties in Detroit and his farm in Sandwich Township (now, Walkerville). In Labadie’s will, dated May 26, 1806, he lovingly promised his widow that she could keep her two preferred slaves. All other enslaved property would be sold, with the revenues split between family members.

Among Labadie’s contemporaries was the celebrated Baby family, known today as one of Windsor’s most illustrious founding families. The family patriarch, Jacques Baby, was a prosperous trader and Indian agent. His son, James Jacques Baby became a wealthy politician, judge, landowner, militia officer, and fur trader. Another son, François Baby, was a businessman and Legislative Assembly member who built a residence called La Ferme—today’s Baby House in downtown Windsor. It has been reported that Jacques Baby held at least thirty enslaved individuals on the Upper Canadian side of the Detroit River.

The enslaved Africans held by the Baby family included Job and Jacques-Caton. The latter married an enslaved Metis woman named Marie in 1780, at the owner’s insistence. The resulting child, Jacques, was born into slavery in the Baby household shortly thereafter. Dupéront also counted among his possessions an enslaved mulatto woman named Geneviève, and Thérèse, another mulatto woman, who was eventually given to François Baby as a gift. Her children, Léon and Rose Lontin, also belonged to the Baby family. François’ brother, James Jacques Baby, purchased Thérèse but not her children. She was emancipated in 1803, but lived and worked alongside the family until her death in 1826.

The interior lives and characteristics of most of these individuals are left entirely to our imaginations, but a short Baby family narrative exists regarding Thérèse. One of the daughters of Jacques Baby, who had lived away for some time, paid a visit to the family’s Toronto home in the 1820s. A strange Black woman ran towards her on the street, moving excitedly and calling out. The white woman thought that it was a madwoman, but the other family members laughed and reassured her that this was their old slave, Thérèse, who was merely showing great joy to see the daughter of the master after so many years. In the vignette, Thérèse is described as performing a dance accompanied by African singing. This glimpse, albeit still from the slave owners’ perspective and steeped in the language of racial stereotypes, reminds us of this woman’s humanity and generosity of spirit.

While this narrative could be used as evidence that the Babys maintained good relationships with their “property,” there is also records that the Baby family were vocal opponents against abolition. Historian Gregory Wigmore relays a story from James Parrish, a Quaker visiting Sandwich from Pennsylvania in 1793. After a conversation with François, James observed: “This man seemed as dark in his sentiments as many negro masters in the Southern States.” While slavery was not nearly as entrenched or pervasive as it was in the southern United States, it seems the ideologies underlying the system were the same.

Another founding father is John Askin. A well-known fur trader, landowner, and entrepreneur in the Great Lakes region, he crossed the Detroit River and settled his family in Sandwich in 1802. Askin, who would go on to serve as militia commandant and justice of the peace in Essex County, is today heralded as a community founder. He was also a prodigious slaver, owning a number of Indigenous and Black slaves on both sides of the river. According to records, there were two enslaved men of African descent, named Jupiter and Pompey, who had been purchased by Askin in New York in 1775 and brought with him to this area. Askin came to hold multiple other people of African descent in captivity in Sandwich, including a man named Ben and another named Emmanuel who lived to the ripe old age of 55. Askin sold an additional slave, Sam, to Alexander McKee, deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs in Upper Canada, justice of the Court of Common Pleas, and lieutenant-colonel of the local militia. Two of Askin’s slaves, Joseph, who was Black, and a Panis woman named Suzanne, had a daughter, also named Suzanne and born into slavery in the Askin household.

One individual who was counted among Askin’s possessions was an enslaved man of African descent named Joseph Cutten, also known as Josiah Cutan. After a trial held in L’Assomption (subsequently Sandwich) in September 1792, William Dummer Powell (the Western District justice who was also a slave-owner) sentenced Cutten to death for stealing rum and furs from the wealthy trader Joseph Campeau. At the sentencing, the slave-owning judge dramatically compared Cutten to “the wild beasts of the night, who… go prowling about at night for their prey.” Cutten was executed on the gallows at Sandwich and is believed to have been the first person to be executed by hanging anywhere in Upper Canada.

Loyalists Matthew Elliott, Alexander McKee and Simon Girty all fled from Pennsylvania to Detroit in 1778, and each of them owned slaves. Matthew Elliott went from Detroit to Malden (Amherstburg,) never formally establishing a residence in what is now Windsor, but at his estate in Malden he owned as many as sixty human beings: some of those individuals were property he had seized during his American Revolutionary War raids. In 1802 or 1803, Elliott sold an unnamed Black woman, described only as “a Cursed negroe wench,” to Alexander Duff, whom present-day Windsorites remember as the original builder of the Duff-Baby Mansion in Sandwich. On more than one occasion, she had been punished for theft. We know nothing more about her beyond these glimpses of rage, reported solely from the enslaver’s point of view; one can only imagine this woman’s experiences.

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Halifax Confronts Race

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Indigenous people do funerals really, really well.


When a young man I know is stabbed and killed in a street fight in Toronto in 2016, there are no fewer than three memorial services: one at the local Friendship Centre, one at his workplace, and one on his mother’s reserve. A vigil is also held at the site of his death. News of his passing filters through the Indigenous community on Tuesday and Wednesday, and by Thursday, the first memorial is in progress. The events come together beautifully: drummers, elders, a PowerPoint photo slideshow, room rentals, social media invitations, a written program, a speaker’s list, gifts for the family, a basket of tobacco ties (cobbled together from at least three different urban organizations), platters of food, his favourite music piped into the auditorium, a guestbook, and people gathered to support the family and discuss This Thing That Has Happened.

I have lived in and worked for the Indigenous community in Ontario since 1992, and I can tell you: this kind of cooperation, positive energy, and amenability does not exist on an everyday basis.

If you don’t believe me, then believe the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF). Between 1998 and 2014, the AHF — a non-profit organization managed by Indigenous peoples — conducted research and supported community-based healing initiatives across the country. These were meant to address the legacy of residential schools in Canada, including intergenerational impacts. According to the AHF, as a result of the physical, sexual, and psychological abuse suffered by those who attended residential schools, Indigenous peoples in Canada now lack the capacity to build and sustain healthy families and communities.

The AHF says psychological and emotional abuse in Indigenous communities is common. Rage and anger are widespread at all levels -- individual, family, and community. Indigenous peoples carry multiple layers of unresolved grief and loss, and they suffer chronic physical illness related to their emotional and spiritual states. Families, communities, and workplaces suffer from toxic communication patterns. The AHF says there is disunity and conflict among individuals, families, and factions within Indigenous communities. Indigenous people in positions of authority often misuse their power to control others. The social structures that hold families and communities together — trust, common ground, shared purpose and direction, a vibrant ceremonial and civic life, co-operative networks and associations — have broken down, with few working for a common good. Indigenous peoples fear personal growth, transformation, and healing.

In addition to the impacts listed above, the AHF has documented 22 additional impacts of intergenerational trauma that it says are contributing to dysfunction and negative outcomes in Indigenous communities. These findings have been corroborated by other organizations, including the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, which released a 2015 report on the increased prevalence and root causes of depression among Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The AHF makes a direct connection between residential schools and the challenges we see in Indigenous communities today. In so doing, it delegitimizes the notion that colonization — or “civilization,” as some people like to call it — has benefited Indigenous peoples. It also delegitimizes the notion that current challenges within Indigenous communities are the result of inherent deficiencies in Indigenous peoples and cultures. The AHF list of intergenerational impacts makes it very clear: Indigenous peoples and communities are dysfunctional and/or in crisis because of colonialism, not because they are Indigenous.

The way in which the Indigenous community in Toronto came together in 2016 to mourn the death and celebrate the life of the murdered young man shows that age-old Indigenous philosophies — of respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and relationships — continue to underpin Indigenous communities despite the negative effect of colonization and settler colonialism. These philosophies also support the transformative healing work underway in many Indigenous communities across the country. However, I have seen the dysfunction and negative outcomes described by the AHF at every level of Indigenous society, from my own life and the life of my family, to the people I know, the communities I have worked with, and the Indigenous organizations I have worked for.

Indigenous peoples are more than victims, and they are not defined only by the traumatic events of colonization. As Cree student Billy-Ray Belcourt wrote in a blog post after being named the first First Nations Rhodes Scholar in 2015 (an achievement that was inevitably framed around Belcourt’s experiences with racism and the trauma of residential school), “Dear Media: I am more than just violence.” Despite the Indigenous desire to leave the past behind, however, the past doesn’t seem quite done with us.

This past–as–present reality is reflected in the lives of many Indigenous people in Canada, including the life of Robert Arthur Alexie. Alexie was chief of the Tetlit Gwich’in band council in Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, and chief negotiator for the Gwich’in regional land claim in 1992. After serving his people in multiple roles, he was elected president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council in 2012. Alexie was also a musician, a photographer, and the author of two novels including the ground-breaking Porcupines and China Dolls, which deals with the impacts of the residential school system on Indigenous peoples. Alexie was knowledgeable, principled, and funny, and he made enduring contributions to his nation and to the country. And in 2014, at the age of 58, he was found at the side of the Dempster Highway in the Northwest Territories, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In a 2015 piece about Alexie’s contribution to Indigenous and Canadian literature, journalist Noah Richler surmised that Alexie’s “terrifying private demons” had finally caught up with him.

These demons are a persistent reality in the lives of all the Indigenous people I know and have known, affecting those on the fringes of society and those in positions of influence and authority. They exist in people who seem to be functioning just fine, thank you — the kind of people who are profiled in good–news media stories that seek to overturn common myths and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples and communities.

The young man whose death brought the Toronto community together in an all-too-familiar ritual of mourning was certainly a success story. He worked at a major cultural institution. He had graduated from high school, studied a trade at the college level, and was registered in another college program when he died. He had pursued his goals, even completing a course to overcome his fear of public speaking. He bicycled to and from work and was trying to quit smoking. He had a girlfriend and he was saving up so they could move out of her father’s house. He was well-liked and he wanted to work for his community. He did everything the student support workers at his high school and college said he should do. And he still died at age 20, stabbed in the neck and chest, after taking a bar fight outside.

Behind all our goals, our successes, and our attempts at success, there is a story. It is a story of terror, anger, grief, and loss. It is a story that still, after hundreds of years, determines Indigenous lives in Canada. The young man in Toronto carried this story, as all Indigenous peoples do. It is not the only story we tell — there are stories of happiness and achievement, too — but it is the one that sometimes seems to have the most influence. The time has come to understand this story, and the mechanisms of its transmission.

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