Posted by: Bob Fisher | August 12, 2010

The African-Canadian Experience in the Province of Ontario

… including a podcast with Travel Educator Bijan Bayne

The journey

It is the largest festival of its kind in North America; and it is called Caribana. It is also symbolic of a very long journey to Canada that people of African descent and heritage made, both over recent decades and in the early history of what was once known as Upper Canada.

The terminus

The story of African-Canadians may be somewhat overshadowed by that in the United States, but it is a very much a transborder story. It is a also a story of suffering and triumph; a story of the search for and realization of freedom.

In Southwestern Ontario, not far from the border cities of Detroit and Windsor, the Black history and heritage of the region is a significant piece of Canadian and American history; and also tells personal family stories imbued with meaning, meaningfulness, and passion.

This is also the northern terminus of the famous Underground Railroad. As the final stop for escaping slaves from the United States, it is also a physical setting in which you can visualize, imagine, and learn about a terminus of freedom.

As Bijan expresses it in this podcast, “Growing up in the United States you hear about the Underground Railroad. But this was my first experience visiting freedom, visiting victory, and visiting the terminus. So that was very eye-opening.”

The John Freeman Walls Historic Site

Dr. Bryan Walls is a dentist in the city of Windsor, directly across the river from the sprawling megalopolis of Detroit. Today the two cities are connected in many ways, economically, industrially (both have major automobile plants) and culturally. This is a common experience for border cities.

However historically, the divide between the two cities, could not be more different, as Dr. Walls discovered when he began his geneological research and explored the past of his great-great grandparents John and Jane Walls.

John and Jane were among the many fugitive slaves who travelled the Underground Railroad. They made the long and perilous journey from Troublesome Creek in the County of Rockingham in North Carolina to Maidstone Township on the Ontario/Canadian side of what was once called “the longest undefended border in the world.”

Some historians refer to the Underground Railroad as the first great freedom movement in the Americas; an initiative started by a Quaker abolitionist in 1804 by the name of Levi Coffin. It was essentially a secret network of people dedicated to the cause of freedom for Blacks. But it was also a movement that brought together Blacks and Whites of various faiths and ideologies in opposition to the institution of slavery.

As a result of the movement of people back and forth across this common border, slavery was not unknown in Canada; however in 1793 the first Lieutenant-Governor (and official representative of the British Monarch) of what was then called Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe declared before his legislature that “There should no longer be discrimination between those of African Ancestry and those of European Ancestry.” His statement eventually helped lead to the abolishment of slavery in Canada.

For Dr. Walls and his family, a very personal story was eventually self-published by them in 1980 and titled The Road that Led to Somewhere.

Buxton and the Elgin Settlement

Class photo taken in front of the only school in Canada built (1861) by fugitive slaves; courtesy of Buxton National Historic Site

Between the years of 1801 and 1876, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to prepare a report on the “Canadian Negroes” and what was known as the Elgin Settlement; a community of African-Americans who had escaped slavery by way of the Underground Railroad.

His report said in part, “Twenty years ago, most of them were slaves who owned nothing, not even their children. Now they own themselves; they own homes and farms, and they have their wives and children about them. They are enfranchised citizens of a government which protects their rights.”

While this landmark report was a significant historical document and moment in time, and proof positive of the ability of “fugitive” African-Americans to choose their own destiny, the Elgin Settlement — like any courageous undertaking — still faced prejudice and discrimination. Some white settlers in the area feared the arrival of now free slaves and created a petition attempting to block the expansion of the settlement.

Much later, in the 20th century, African-Canadians would still face racist attitudes in this part of the country, in particular in the city of Dresden, Ontario. In the 1950s, a Black carpenter, and veteran of the Second World War, was ostracized and his business boycotted. He was eventually forced to leave Dresden because of his attempts to desegregate local restaurants and barbershops. The irony of course was that his family had been residents of the area since the 1850s.

This is not the only skeleton in Canada’s historical cupboard, but today the nation is one of the most multicultural on the planet.

The original settlement of Buxton was established when the Presbyterian Church bought the land for settlement of escaping slaves, and, led by William King a staunch defender of human rights, it eventually prospered. The Elgin Settlement was also given support by George Brown who would later become one of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation.

Today, Buxton is a multidimensional historical and heritage site; but it is also a place where you can see the results of Black Americans’ determined quest for freedom, justice, and self-determination.

Literary Black history in Southwestern Ontario

Josiah Henson; courtesy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The book was titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and created much controversy when it was published in 1852; and has continued to create controversy to this day, especially during the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century. In the 19th century, it was the best-selling novel of the time, surpassed in sales only by the Bible.

Some say that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimental novel help lay the groundwork for the American Civil War (or the War Between the States, depending on your point of view); is a novel of idealism and melodrama; contained characters that were examples of either archetypes or stereotypes (again according to your point of view); and was a major factor in the abolitionist movement in the Americas but also in Great Britain.

A visit to Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, however, an encounter with a real human being; and Josiah Henson, the individual on whom Stowe based her principal character. As Bijan says in our chat, “… it is a Canadian story … and the first time I came into contact with Josiah Henson as an individual… as a minister, as a person who helped others gain their freedom.”

This is also an historic site that is highly contextual in terms of its physical and cultural landscapes, not to mention the all-important geographical proximity to the United States.

The story of Josiah Henson is also about transcendence.

The Freedom Bell Plaque, which would be rung each time an escaping slave reached safety in Buxton; courtesy of Chatham-Kent Tourism

Caribana: an expression of multicultural Canada

The name says it all.

However, Caribana is much more that the largest street party of its kind in North America. Caribana is a celebration of the collective self, of a mosaic of sub-cultures that each contributes a unique perspective on the Caribbean. It is also a celebration of the Canadian citizens who came from that region.

Caribana is music (calypso, soca, reggae, chutney, steel pan, brass bands). It is also art, dance, theatre, and literature. Caribana is food — Caribbean-style! The three-week festival began in 1967 (Canada’s Centennial year) as a community heritage project. The most recent Caribana attacted more than a million visitors as well as members of Toronto and Ontario’s black communities.

And Caribana reaches fever pitch with a parade that follows a 3.6-kilometre route along Toronto’s lakeshore; a parade that lasts more than six hours.

To learn more about this summer festival, click on the Caribana link below. To see the participants in the Caribana parade in action — in their brilliant and original costumes — click on the link “Images and imagery of Caribana”. To hear the “beat” of Caribana and to hear others talk about this mega-festival, click on the audio-links.

But, above all, visit Caribana next year either in person or virtually at Caribana!

Sounds like Caribana…

(a) Jack Layton, Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, comments on the “gift” of Caribana

(b) Shannon Ryan, Executive Director of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention

(c) A Caribana medley

Images and imagery of Caribana

To view a slideshow of the Caribana festivities, click here.


(a) The John Freeman Walls Historic Site

(b) Buxton

(c) Uncle Tom’s Cabin

(d) Caribana

(e) Chatham-Kent Tourism

(f) The Association of African-Canadian Artists

(g) Black history and heritage in Oro, Ontario

(h) On the Road North: Black Canada and the Journey to Freedom

(i) Communicate with Bijan Bayne at Sports Traveling or The Travel Educators.

(j) Also recommended … Canadian writer Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (published in the United States as Someone Knows my Name)

(k) The Official Toronto Tourism Board

An early Black cemetery of the area; courtesy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site
Visitors to the oldest standing log cabin built in 1852 by a former slave; courtesy Chatham-Kent Tourism

Emancipation poster; courtesy of Uncle Tom’s cabin Historic Site

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