Indigenous people aren’t often the first to come to mind when talking about slavery.
For a long period of time Western society has more or less pinned Native American nations and tribes as people that lost their land through colonization, and today try to pick fights and protests.
To top it off, when thinking about slavery it is even easier to think of cotton fields and confederates in the U.S., and to think of Canada as the saving side of the Underground Railroad.
But slavery in Canada isn’t as untainted as many would like to think.
It’s hard to count just how many Native American people were enslaved by Europeans, as many accounts of Native enslavement in the colonial period were left without a paper trail for being illegal. But, historians have come up with estimates.
Between 1670 and 1715, more Native Americans were exported into slavery than Africans were imported through Charleston, South Carolina. It is estimated that roughly two to four million Native American people from the North and South may have been enslaved over the centuries that slavery took lead — this is a much larger number than previously thought. But, even though it is not at the level of African enslavement — which brought 10 million slaves to the Americas — if the late 1600s are looked over it is easy to see that there had been more enslaved Native Americans than enslaved Africans in the Americas at that time.
However, this isn’t a contest of who had more; the numbers simply allow a perspective.
There was a much smaller percentage of enslaved people in Canada, be they Native American or African, than there were in the U.S. The U.S. had such a dependence upon slaves that the country also caused an influx of some of the worst treatment for them — selected “breeding,” abusive overseers and much more. But this is not to say that the treatment of slaves in Canada was better.
Unlike any slavery amongst Native American and African people prior to European contact, none can compare to the separation, alienation and dehumanization of the exploitative nature of European slavery. European slavery was also based upon race, and troublesome slaves were often met with severe punishment including physical and sexual abuse.
But Native American people are not exempt either. In the prime of slavery and trade as well, it was common for more powerful Native American nations and tribes to be persuaded to hunt other nations and tribes to be traded into slavery in exchange for food, goods and wares — especially in the winter months.
Slaves often escaped slavery themselves by running away from “masters” and assisting others to do the same. By 1777 a number of former slaves escaped Canada by fleeing to Vermont, which had abolished slavery in the same year; as by the end of the century attitudes towards slavery among the free population had begun to shift.
In 1833, human enslavement was abolished by the entirety of the British Empire, making it illegal to sell, trade or buy human beings and thus ending the transatlantic trade. Some jurisdictions in Canada had already taken measures to restrict or end slavery by that time, by 1833 British Colonies in North America had become a safe haven for escaped slaves in the U.S.
The complexity of Native American slavery and it’s influence upon Canadian and American history will never be black and white – just as no two distinctive Native American nation or tribe will ever be the same. But it should also not be excluded.