Charmaine Nelson, professor at McGill University, will be speaking at Burman University of Feb. 10th. Photo Submitted

Canadian slavery historian to speak in Lacombe

Latest Burman University Herr Lecture focused on un-taught history of black slavery in Canada

One of Canada’s leading historians — Charmaine Nelson — will be coming to Lacombe as part of the Larry and Denise Herr Lecture Series.

Nelson, who was previously the William Lyon Mackenzie King Visiting Professor at Harvard University and currently is a professor of art history at McGill University, will be presenting her lecture Exploring Canadian Slavery through the fugitive slave archive.

Nelson said her lecture in Lacombe, which will be at the McKibbin Centre at Burman University on Feb. 10th at 7:30 p.m., will focus on the little known topic of Canadian slavery and will borrow from a project she worked on which was focused on Canadian and Jamaican runaway slave advertisements.

“The average Canadian doesn’t know at all that slavery existed in Canada,” Nelson said. “I teach a class called the Visual Culture of Slavery. I introduce Canadian slavery to students through art, visual culture paintings and photography.

“I have never had a Canadian student coming into my class already knowing that slavery transpired in Canada.”

Nelson said this lack of knowledge represents a serious problem with the K-12 education, which mostly only focuses on the Underground Railroad, which was a period after the British abolition of slavery in 1833 where American slaves would flee the United States to British North America which lasted until the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865.

“They are not teaching the 200 years prior when the French and the English were both slaving in the territories that would become Canada,” she said. “So our curriculum is failing us on multiple levels.”

This, according to Nelson, is part of, “Canada’s myth of racial tolerance.

“We never see it as something that grew here and has roots in our nation. We always see it as coming from the U.S. and part of that is because of mass-slavery in the U.S. South,” she said. “Our blind spot is prolific because we have erased it on a national scale.”

Nelson said knowledge of the systems of Canadian slavery have impact today — most notably regarding like issues of police carding and surveillance of black populations in cities like Ottawa and Toronto.

“That to me is one of the legacies of slavery,” she said.

“Part of what slavery did was monitor and surveil black populations because black people were personal property. Even when slavery ended, the racism against those populations didn’t end — it just changed forms.

“We now have different state-infrastructures that take up the same processes that were enacted by individual slave owners in the past.”

Nelson said it is important for all Canadians to look back in their family histories and realize that they are connected to slavery in some way.

“If you are connected to the Americas and go far enough back into your history — you are going to hit someone who was either enslaved or had something to do with slavery,” she said.

“White Canadians do not acknowledge that their own family trees have people in them that have something to do with slavery.

“If you don’t take ownership of that, than how slavery gets taught is only as a black history. Of course it involves black people but it is also in the family trees of white people.”

Discussing the reality of slavery and the current experiences of black people in Canada is an important step for race relations in Canada according to Nelson.

“For a black people of the diaspora, we feel like we are talking into a void,” she said. “We feel that our fellow European-Canadian and European-American neighbors are not listening to us.

“We have to manage our lives in terms of racism.”

Nelson said people need to recognize the experience and reality of black Canadians is different and often problematic.

One huge example for Nelson is the fact that black Canadians need to speak with their children much differently than white Canadians in terms of interactions with police offices.

”This is a conversation that all black parents have with their black children because it is a real threat to us because we understand there is a lot of scholarship that shows police forces age black children,” she said. “If it is a 10-year-old, they will see them as a 16-year-old. The other thing that happens with black kids is that they are assumed as criminals.

“We are approached differently and spoken to differently. We are aggressed against and not seen as a citizen whom the police are trying to help. We are not the ones being served and protected and there are too many cases of black people being shot or harmed by police when they are trying to go home, trying to leave work when they have done nothing wrong. We know this. Who can deny this now? How much evidence do you need?”

Nelson said the effect these conversations have on children is immense.

“You change their outlook on their lives in that moment but as a black parent who wants to be responsible — you feel negligent if you don’t have that conversation,” she said.

“Most white people say, ‘I’ve never heard of this’, because they don’t have to do it because their kids are not threatened in that way.”

Nelson said understanding the Canadian history of slavery can help people understand these systemic issues.

“Understanding slavery makes people understand the legacy of what we are still living with and then they can say, ‘Oh yeah. That is where this came from’, rather than saying, ‘That black guy must have been doing something bad. That is why he got shot’.”

Nelson said it is important for people to realize how profound an effect slavery had.

“I want people to get what a huge history it is and how profound it was for the enslaved to be controlled in that way and controlled in perpetuity,” she said.

“The difference between American slavery versus ancient forms of slavery — like Greek and Roman slavery — was that African slaves were deemed to be enslaved forever and if a female was enslaved, any child born to her was also a slave.”

Nelson said this system provided incentive for sexual violence against female slaves because new slave children would ultimately mean more wealth generated for the slave-owners.

“This has effects today like the hyper-sexualization of black woman in popular music and video culture and that come from slavery,” she said.

Nelson also wants people to understand that Canadian slavery was in no way less brutal than American or Caribbean slavery.

“This is the idea of a benevolent Canadian slave-owner,” she said. “I recently wrote a book chapter trying to debunk this which included the idea of multiple-passages of people who ended up in places like Canada.

“You could have been born free in Africa; put on a slave ship ending up in somewhere like Jamaica, Barbados or Haiti; then someone throws you on a ship again and sends you to Quebec City.”

What being a slave in Quebec meant is that you were most likely in a place with zero connection to your language, culture and traditions.

“That is a loss of culture as trauma and this is what we are not thinking about,” she said.

Tickets for Nelson’s talk can be found at

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