The story of Ontario, previously called Upper Canada, is one you might be familiar with.
It often describes how European settlers, made up mostly of United Empire Loyalists, left the United States after the chaos of the American Revolution to form settlements along the St. Lawrence River in the late 1790s.
But there’s a lesser known group that some are now trying to highlight: the enslaved people the white settlers brought with them.
“Part of our history is really hidden,” said Natasha Henry-Dixon, an assistant professor of African Canadian history at York University.
Through her research, Henry-Dixon has discovered there were more than 600 Black people who were enslaved in Upper Canada during that time period. One of them was John Baker.
His story has recently become a point of interest for both Henry-Dixon and some researchers in eastern Ontario, because Baker is believed to be one of the last people born into slavery in Canada.
Slavery in Canada
“John’s story is quite fascinating,” said Henry-Dixon. “We were able to trace him from enslavement to freedom.”
According to historical records, Baker was born into slavery in present-day Quebec in the 1780s. He, his mother and his siblings were owned by a Maj. John Gray, who served the British during the American Revolution.
As a United Empire Loyalist, Gray was granted land in Upper Canada and settled in New Johnstown — present-day Cornwall, Ont. — in the late 18th century.
Henry-Dixon said Baker’s forced labour included being Gray’s personal servant and farming the land they had settled on.
That forced labour continued under Gray’s son, Robert, until his death in 1804, after which Baker and the rest of his family were freed.
As a free man, Baker would enlist in the British army. He fought in the War of 1812 and later in the Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon Bonaparte.
Baker eventually returned to Cornwall, where he reunited with family and got married.
He died in 1871, but not before sharing his life story in an interview with a Toronto lawyer two years before his death. His was only the second known first-hand account of someone who was enslaved in the province, according to Henry-Dixon.
The historian said Baker’s story offers a critical glimpse into not only the life of someone born into slavery, but how the structure of enslavement was “supported legally, socially [and] politically” in Canada.
It’s something that’s often “downplayed” because there was no plantation economy here, but “we have to think about how enslavement was adaptable to the environment,” said Henry-Dixon.
In this case, slavery was adapted to build the country’s earliest colonial settlements, she said.
Upcoming exhibits featuring Baker’s life story
It’s that uncomfortable truth that researchers in eastern Ontario are now trying to highlight through the stories of people like John Baker.
They include Brent Whitford, senior curator and administrator of the Cornwall Community Museum.
He also happens to be Baker’s great-, great-, great-, great-, great-nephew — one of many descendants still living in the area.
“Making that connection was quite a revelation,” said Whitford, who discovered the relation through historical records about 15 years ago.
As curator of the museum, Whitford is overseeing an upcoming exhibit called 1784. It’s all about the history of Cornwall, the history of slavery in the region and the details of Baker’s life.
“It’s important to highlight that sort of multicultural aspect of Canadian history as part of our founding, not just as something that came later in time,” he said.
Another exhibit is coming to Upper Canada Village, a heritage park in Morrisburg, Ont., that will also bring to light the details of slavery in eastern Ontario and the stories of Black people living there, including Baker’s.
“It’s a story that’s not told. I grew up in this area. I never knew any of the stories or even that there were Black people in this area,” said research and training officer Milton Kooistra.
“For that reason alone, I think it’s important to know that there was a presence, a Black community here.”
It’s exactly what historians like Henry-Dixon hope to see: recognition of enslaved people’s contributions to Canada.
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