There has been a steady stream of migration of Black people into Canada via Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States since the 17th century. The first recorded Black person to arrive in Canada was an African named Mathieu de Coste who arrived in 1608 to serve as interpreter of the Mi’kmaq language to the governor of Acadia. A few thousand Africans arrived in Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries as slaves. After the American Revolution, the British gave passage to over 3000 slaves and free Blacks who had remained loyal to the Crown. These Black Loyalists joined the many other United Empire Loyalists in settlements across the Maritime Provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Other Black slaves joined their Loyalist slave owners when they migrated to Canada.
In 1793, the Upper Canada legislature passed an act that granted gradual abolition and any slave arriving in the province was automatically declared free. Fearing for their safety in the United States after the passage of the first Fugitive Slave Law in 1793, over 30,000 slaves came to Canada via the Underground Railroad until the end of the American Civil War in 1865. They settled mostly in southern Ontario, but some also settled in Quebec and Nova Scotia. Many returned to the United States to fight in the Civil War and rejoin their families after its end.
Other migrations of Black people from the United States occurred during the War of 1812, when over 2000 refugees came to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Another group of over 800 free Blacks from California migrated to Vancouver Island between 1858 and 1860. Many Black people migrated to Canada in search of work and became porters with the railroad companies in Ontario, Quebec, and the Western provinces or worked in mines in the Maritimes. Between 1909 and 1911 over 1500 migrated from Oklahoma as farmers and moved to Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
In 1910 the government of Canada implemented a new Immigration Act that barred immigrants into Canada from races deemed undesirable and very few Black people entered Canada during the next few decades. In 1955, the West Indian Domestic Scheme permitted single women aged 18 to 35 and in good health to work in Canada as domestics for one year before being granted immigrant status. Over 2600 women were admitted under this scheme. In 1967, the government of Canada dropped the racially discriminatory immigration system, after which Black immigration rose dramatically.
Research at Library and Archives Canada
Library and Archives Canada holds many fonds relating to Black people. Some of the documents and fonds are listed below.
Port Roseway Associates, Muster Book of Free Blacks, Settlement of Birchtown, 1784 (MG 9 B9-14)
During the American Revolution, the British and Loyalist forces evacuated New York in 1783. Hundreds of Loyalist refugees joined together to form the Port Roseway Associates with the intention of finding new homes and creating a new settlement in Nova Scotia. These Loyalists, with their families, servants and slaves, founded the community of Port Roseway, shortly thereafter renamed Shelburne. The free Blacks amongst the Loyalists formed a separate enclave known as Birchtown. The Muster Book of Free Blacks who settled in Birchtown has been indexed and digitized in the following database:
Black Loyalist Refugees, 1782-1807- Port Roseway Associates
Ward Chipman, Muster Master's Office (1777-1785) (MG 23 D1)
This fonds contains muster rolls of Loyalists and their families belonging to regiments that were disbanded and settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (volumes 24 to 27, microfilm C-9818). It includes references to Black Loyalists, servants and free Blacks. The records have been indexed and digitized in the following database:
Loyalists in the Maritimes — Ward Chipman Muster Master's Office, 1777–1785
Book of Negroes (MG23 B1)
The Book of Negroes is contained within the British Headquarters Papers (microfilm M–369), also known as the Carleton Papers. It gives information such as names of the black Loyalists, health, distinguishing marks, status (free or slave), origins, names of their white associates and names of ships used to carry them. The names are indexed in the following database:
Carleton Papers – Book of Negroes, 1783
William King Collection (MG 24 J14)
Born in Scotland, William King came to Canada as a Free Church missionary and was active in the abolition struggle. He established the Elgin Settlement, designed for escaped slaves from the United States. He also assisted with the organization of a Black community near Chatham, Ontario. The Miscellaneous papers, 1836-1895, include his autobiography, correspondence and documents relating to the Buxton Mission and Elgin Association.
Mikan 101149 includes a fuller description of the collection. Follow the lower level descriptions links to see more information and some digitized documents.
Great Britain: Treasury Office (MG 15 T28, microfilm C-13523)
The following pages contain references to Black people in Nova Scotia:
- A letter of G. Harrison to the Storekeeper General of 10 July 1816 concerning the disposition of stores delivered at Halifax for the use of Black refugees at Melville Island (vol. 14, p. 222)
- A letter from G. Harrison to the Commissioners of the Navy of 9 June 1821 concerning the removal of Black refugees from Halifax to Trinidad (vol. 19, p. 225)
- A letter from G. Harrison to the Commissioners of the Navy of 4 July 1821 stating that plans for the removal of Black refugees from Halifax to Trinidad have been approved (vol. 19, p. 279).
Immigration Branch: Central Registry Files (RG76)
Canadian Pacific Railway requests admission of coloured porters (Blacks), 1931-1949 (volume 577, file 816222, parts 6-10, microfilms C-10652 and C-10653) This file contains 4,810 names of black immigrants coming from the United States to work as porters for the Canadian Pacific Railway company.
Coloured domestics from Guadeloupe, 1910-1928 (volume 475, file 731832, microfilm C-10410) This file contains 107 names of female immigrants from Guadeloupe to be hired by families living in Montreal, Quebec.
The names in these two files are indexed in the following database:
Immigrants to Canada, Porters and Domestics, 1899-1949
If you find a reference, see the database’s section on how to obtain copies.
Other documents or fonds
You can search for other records in Archives Search. Try Keywords such as those suggested below for research in published sources. You can also try a name, place name or other subject. Also try Image Search.
If you find references of interest to you, find out how to Access the Records.
Other online resources
Research in published sources
Newspapers often contained advertisements for slaves. Library and Archives Canada has many Canadian newspapers on microform. Newspapers should be consulted for the period preceding abolition in 1834.
Search for books on Black people in AMICUS, using authors, titles or subject terms such as:
- Black/Black Canadian
- A Documentary Study of the Establishment of Negroes in Nova Scotia between the War of 1812 and the Winning of Responsible Government, by Nova Scotia Public Archives. (AMICUS 687369)
- A genealogist's guide to discovering your African-American ancestor: how to find and record your unique heritage, by Franklin Carter Smith.
- A safe haven: the story of the Black settlers of Oxford County, by Joyce A. Pettigrew. (AMICUS 33105321)
- African American genealogy: a bibliography and guide to sources, by Curt Bryan Witcher.
- Anglican Church records, Niagara Falls, coloured extractions, by the Ontario Genealogical Society, Niagara Peninsula Branch. (AMICUS 13426501)
- Black Canadians: history, experiences, social conditions, by Joseph Mensah. (AMICUS 27457117)
- Black genealogy, by Charles L. Blockson.
- Black genesis: a resources book for African-American genealogy, by James Rose.
- Black heritage in Bertie Township, Welland County, by the Ontario Genealogical Society, Niagara Peninsula Branch. (AMICUS 13426528)
- Black heritage in Grantham Township, Lincoln County, by the Ontario Genealogical Society, Niagara Peninsula Branch. (AMICUS 13426512)
- Black Roots: a Beginner's guide to tracing the African American Family Tree, by Tony Burroughs.
- Blacks in Canada: In Search of the Promise, by Francine Govia and Helen Lewis. (AMICUS 8005778)
- Blacks in deep snow: Black pioneers in Canada, by Colin A. Thomson. (AMICUS 587461)
- Canada and its people of African descent, by Leo W. Bertley. (AMICUS 23169)
- Deportation of Negroes from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leon, by A.G. Archibald.
- Family pride: the complete guide to tracing African-American genealogy, by Donna Beasley. (AMICUS 15530720)
- Family secrets: crossing the colour line, by Catherine Slaney.
- Finding your African American ancestors: a beginner's guide, by David T. Thackery.
- Jamaican Ancestry: how to find out more, by Madeleine E. Mitchell.
- Les Noirs du Québec, 1629-1900, by Daniel Gay. (AMICUS 30851571)
- The African Diaspora in Canada: negotiation identity & belonging, by Wisdom Tettey and Korbla P. Puplampu. (AMICUS 32097215)
- The Black Loyalist Directory: African Americans in Exile after the American Revolution, by the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
- The Black Loyalists: the search for the Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870, by James Walker. (AMICUS 17472)
- The Blacks in Canada: A study Guide, by James Walker. (AMICUS 2106947)
- Trials and Triumphs the story of African-Canadians, by Lawrence Hill. (AMICUS 11026001)
Research at other institutions and online