Shaping Canadian values

Fugitives on the Underground Railroad forced Canada to take a stand on human rights

Date published: 2006-04-27 10:25:25 AM

While it's well known that Canada represented freedom to more than 30,000 fugitive slaves and free African Americans traveling on the Underground Railroad, the role these refugees played in shaping Canadian policies and values is still being uncovered.

“When I was a kid, the story of the Underground Railroad ended at the Canadian border,” says archeologist and historian Karolyn Smardz Frost. “American and Canadian literature, media and textbooks have largely ignored the rest of the story.”

Smardz Frost, a post-doctoral researcher at York University, is committed to uncovering both sides of the story of the Underground Railroad: what coming to Canada meant to individual black settlers, and how this migration influenced Canadian race and immigration policies.

“We have a long history of receiving large numbers of refugees to what we perceive as our kinder, gentler nation,” she says. “The first phase of the development of a refugee policy was the government's response to the Underground Railroad.”

In fact, the first test case of extradition law in Canada involved a fugitive slave couple named Thornton and Lucie Blackburn in 1833. The Kentucky refugees' right to stay was defended by Ontario Lieutenant Governor John Colborne, who refused to comply with the United States' extradition demands.

“To this day, we don't send people back to countries where they are going to be executed or tortured,” says Smardz Frost.

But, she is also careful to point out that we must not romanticize our past.

“Canada did receive fugitives and gave them a more or less level playing field,” she explains. “But, racism knows no boundaries, and there was certainly plenty of it to contend with here.”

Reconstructing the details of often illiterate individual refugee's lives has been a painstaking endeavour for Smardz Frost. Only about 200 detailed accounts survive out of the more than 30,000 fugitives who came both on secret routes of the Underground Railroad or who made their way to Canada with little or no help.

“I want to know the rest of the stories, to celebrate them and to embed them in the public memory of this nation, as a part of the history of the Canada we know now,” she says.

Smardz Frost's research on the Canadian experience of the Underground Railroad is supported through SSHRC's Post doctoral fellowships program.