Thinking beyond Black History Month

McGill University professor making sure learning about black history does not start and end in February

As the 2017-18 William Lyon Mackenzie King visiting professor for Canadian Studies at Harvard University, McGill University professor Charmaine Nelson is sharing her rich and unique perspective on underexamined topics in black history with a broader international audience.

As an art history professor, each semester Nelson shows her incoming students evidence that for 250 years, until 1833 when Britain outlawed slavery in all its colonies, Canada like its southern neighbour was a slave-trading nation.

Nelson is an expert in transatlantic slavery studies, which spans several disciplines, including visual culture. She explains that, in the past, the field overly focused on tropical plantation slavery, where enslaved populations became the majority population—like in Jamaica, Brazil and Cuba.

In Nelson’s opinion, studies have, to a large extent, neglected to look north, including to Canada, where the enslaved population remained a minority population.

When asked about numbers, Nelson cites an estimate by Université Laval professor Marcel Trudel that about 3,600 enslaved Indigenous and African people lived in New France in 1759.

Nelson, however, is more interested in the stories of the people behind those figures.

Fugitive slave advertisements dating back over 200 years have provided Nelson valuable insights into the lives of some enslaved people. The posters and notices were designed to track down runaway slaves, and described in detail the escapees’ skills, language abilities and physical traits.

Nelson is also continuing to dig through estate ledgers, bills of sale, poll tax records, and workhouse and jail ledgers to piece together one human story after another. As she paints a picture of the lives of enslaved men, women and children, and of their enslavers, in Canada, she is also exposing some of the “forced migration” patterns of the time.

Nelson explains that the costs of forgetting slavery in Canada are huge—especially when it comes to racial profiling and policing.

“For me as a scholar, I see this as a legacy of slavery,” she says, “a manifestation of things we had in the past, in the way that our bodies are marked and deemed to be suspicious.”

“Slavery didn’t go away in 1833,” says Nelson. “Slavery gets abolished, it’s no longer legally allowable to own another human being, but racism does not disappear.”

Nelson’s contributions to visual culture, black Canadian history, and African Canadian art history have been groundbreaking. She says her position in an institution like McGill University has enabled her to work with graduate students, and to train more researchers in transatlantic slavery studies.

Stay up to date with Nelson’s latest research findings on the Black Canadian Studies website.