- Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage by Marcel Trudel
Marcel Trudel’s Canada’s Forgotten Slaves represents a lifetime of painstaking work to recover the hidden history of slavery in early Canada. First published in 1960 as L’esclavage au Canada français, Trudel’s work met a frosty reception from his peers and has been largely overlooked ever since. George Tombs’s translated edition, which was shortlisted for a Governor General’s award, hopes to restore both Trudel’s and slavery’s rightful places in Canadian history.
Overall, the book is a fascinating look at the practice of slavery in Quebec over the course of two centuries. Contrary to most histories of Canada, Trudel begins with the premise that the institution of slavery was endemic to all European colonies regardless of their climate, economy, or ethnic/religious identity. To be sure, the number of slaves in New France (less than 4,200 in total) paled in comparison to the hundreds of thousands who toiled on Caribbean sugar plantations. Nonetheless, these paltry numbers were not for lack of trying; as elsewhere, colonists, both French and English, from governors to merchants to clerics sought slaves to counter the colony’s labour shortages and to confer social status. Who then were these 4,200 slaves and what was their role in early Canadian society? According to Trudel, two thirds of them were aboriginal peoples (panis) acquired deep in the pays d’en haut via the colony’s First Nations allies. By contrast, black slaves were smuggled into the colony or arrived as the spoils of war. Once here, most slaves became urban dwellers and worked as household servants.
If the sizeable number of slaves Trudel has uncovered did exist, why have Canadian historians missed seeing them? Trudel claims that aside from the numbers issue, was slavery’s ambiguous legal standing. In particular, the Code Noir, which regulated slavery in other French colonies, had no official standing in New France, although masters and the courts tended to follow its provisions. As a result, Trudel claims, the social standing of Canadian slaves was often not outwardly different from free peoples: slaves married, were offered the full suite of sacraments, could testify in court, and, in one remarkable case recounted at length, sued for their own freedom. Finally, unlike their counterparts in Upper Canada, Lower Canadian legislators never passed a statute regulating emancipation; slavery died out as quietly as it arrived.
Trudel’s meticulous amassing of evidence is the greatest strength of his work; it is also its greatest weakness, as the study tends to forgo comparative analysis for detailed description. Despite being revised twice, much of the language (savage, ebony slave) has not been and it can be jarring to modern readers. So too are Trudel’s claims that [End Page 225] Canadian slavery was more benign than elsewhere, including, it seems, in sexual relations between slaves and masters. Though it was in its day a considerable work of social history, it rarely engages with the flood of literature on the lives of slaves and masters that has emerged since. That said, Trudel’s work will be invaluable to future historians hoping to further reveal the institutional peculiarities of Canadian slavery.