Canadians must face reality of slavery, historian says

Canadians are proud of their historical connections with the Underground Railroad but shouldn’t be deluded into thinking that slavery isn’t an important part of our past too, according to Christina Simmons.

“The Underground Railroad is important but it’s not the whole story,” said Dr. Simmons, a professor in the University’s history department and women’s studies program. “I think the power of the Underground Railroad myth is very great, and of course there’s a certain motivation. It presents Canada and white Canadians in a more positive light.”

February is Black History Month, a time when North Americans remember and acknowledge important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. Acknowledging that slavery existed in Canada, and that it contributed to racism that persisted well after it was abolished, would go a long way towards countering the negative effects from it that still persist, Simmons said.

“Slavery needs to be integrated into the national narrative of Canada,” she said. “What are kids taught in school? They should know that this existed. This is part of our heritage and racism is part of our heritage and it leads to things today that we need to be addressing.”

Prior to being abolished in 1834, there were about 4,000 slaves in Canada, Simmons said. Even in nearby Amherstburg, there was a tobacco farmer who owned about 50 to 60 slaves in the early 19th century, she added.

There were many white people – most notably among them the Quakers – who were morally opposed to slavery, but a great amount of the work of the Underground Railroad was carried on by African Americans and African Canadians who were helping one another, said Simmons, who will appear on CJAM this afternoon to discuss her research and teaching on black history.

Simmons’ current research is focused on a series of conferences that were held during the 1940s and 1950s at the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham. Those conferences were focused on making marriage work in a modern era as a way of establishing stability and respectability in a community of people who many whites viewed as being unfit for full citizenship, she said.

Simmons will appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.