Diasporic Africans in Canada

Examining the “afterlife” of slavery in Pan-African North America

Although the history of chattel slavery and its repercussions in the United States are well known, Canada’s relationship to slavery is less well understood. In many accounts, Canada is little more than a near-mythical promised land, where formerly enslaved people could go to find freedom and live happily ever after.

Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey [now assistant professor of post-Reconstruction US and African Diaspora history at McGill University, where he holds the William Dawson Chair] knew it wasn’t that simple. His own experiences as an immigrant from Ghana underscored the fact that race relations in Canada are just as complex in their own ways as those in the US—and they made him want to learn more.

“I had a burning desire to understand how Canada got its reputation as a promised land, where people of all classes and backgrounds could pursue self-actualization,” he said. “What I found is that formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants, diasporic Africans, played a monumental role in forcing Canada to adhere to its own moral standards.”

A Pan-African North American story

Adjetey’s SSHRC-funded Yale University doctoral dissertation, From the North Star to the Black Star: African North Americans and the Search for a Land of Promise, 1919–1985, won him four awards and several research fellowships. His research is the first to present a truly Pan-African North American view of 20th-century black activism, with equal attention paid to both the US and Canada. Through primary sources including newspapers, diaries, letters and government records, Adjetey gained a real understanding of how people imagined a transnational community and negotiated citizenship across borders—and what they sacrificed for the benefit of future generations of black Canadians, like himself.

He found that, while slavery was abolished more than 150 years ago in the US and nearly 200 years ago in Canada, its legacy has lived on. The “afterlife” of slavery shaped the way governments regulated immigration from majority black countries and informed public policy on where blacks could live, work and go to school, with some of these policies having lasting effects that are still visible today.

Lingering effects of an abolished institution

Building on his doctoral research, Adjetey is now working on a book [since published in 2023] that will make his findings accessible to a broader range of people. He hopes that by bringing more awareness to the Canadian and North American experience of the African diaspora, his research will help people better understand how the legacy of slavery helped shape race relations in our country and contributed to the marginalization of some of its people—and how we can improve those relations at the state level as well as on a person-to-person basis.

“Because of slavery and racial caste, Canada and the United States have not fully reconciled that African descendants, too, have the right to self-determination. It is for this reason that both governments went to great lengths to undermine Black activism in the 20th century. Understanding the past is vital to addressing some contemporary challenges. Reconciliation is possible.”

Want to learn more?

Follow Adjetey’s work on his website, and see his book, Cross-Border Cosmopolitans: The Making of a Pan-African North America (UNC Press, 2023).

This story was originally posted in February 2019.