The last Heritage Minute highlights the history of slavery in Canada and the path that led to its eventual demise – a story that “needed to be told”, according to the head of the organization behind the series.
The video focuses on Chloe Cooley, an enslaved black woman living in the Niagara region of what was called Upper Canada in the late 18th century.
This isn’t the first time Heritage Minutes have touched on darker parts of Canadian history or the struggles of Black Canadians. But it is one of the first to illustrate the prevalence of slavery in the years before Confederation.
Historians and scholars say they hope it leads to more discussion of the little-known history of black slavery in the colonies that became Canada.
“We realized that the story of slavery in what would become Canada was not known and needed to be told,” said Anthony Wilson-Smith, President and CEO of Historic Canadathe non-profit organization behind the Heritage Minutes.
“You can’t just tell good stories, because you need to realize that we have to do better in certain areas.”
Chloe Cooley’s Story
As rumors of abolition grew louder in the late 18th century, historians say Cooley began to rebel against his “landlord”, Adam Vrooman, by refusing to work or temporarily leaving the property without authorisation.
On March 14, 1793, she was kidnapped and forced on a boat across the Niagara River to the United States.
One of the men who witnessed the incident, Peter Martin, later testified to his violent capture and resistance, which led to a law called the Upper Slavery Limitation Act. Canada.
historica canada thing OYA Media Group — a production company run by black women — to produce the video. It was filmed over two days in the Westfield Heritage Village west of Hamilton and in the Hamilton Conservation Area.
“There’s this hard, emotional punch because we had to portray what Chloe went through, and we couldn’t hold back any punches,” said Alison Duke, one of the video’s producers and director. She said the goal was to tell the true story of slavery in Canada.
“And it wasn’t a beautiful slavery. It wasn’t a more sanitized version than what you see on television in the United States or what you hear and read about in the history books. That was it. so harsh.”
Many of the team who made the video say they grew up watching Heritage Minutes and often didn’t see their history reflected.
WATCH | The making of the Heritage Minutes video on slavery in Upper Canada:
“I think 2020 kind of shone a light on the lack of that content,” said Ngardy Conteh George, one of the video’s producers, referring to widespread protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd two years ago. years by a white police officer in Minneapolis. , Minnesota.
“We can certainly consider that there is a lack of understanding of our experiences because there is no reflection of that in the content that exists.”
The story wasn’t easy to tell for Olivia Barrett, the actress who plays Chloe Cooley in the clip. She says the re-enactment of the story was moving.
“We talk about the Underground Railroad and we talk about Harriet Tubman. But I have to believe that what [Cooley] did, I believe 40 years ago, is what propelled the push north, because this law has changed so much,” Barrett said.
To raise awareness
Historica Canada says that in just over a month, the video amassed 1.2 million views,
“Through this one-minute retelling of her story, it helps to raise awareness,” said Natasha Henry, President of the Ontario Black History Society.
Henry says what is often overlooked in Cooley’s story is that it took another 30 more years after the incident for slavery to be fully abolished, and it continued well into the 1820s.
“Half the politicians in the provincial government held slave property themselves, so they didn’t want immediate emancipation.”
As part of her doctoral research, she studied in depth the experiences of enslaved black people in Upper Canada. She says Niagara was one of the areas in the province that had one of the highest concentrations of slaves.
“It’s still something that’s downplayed: that it was the ideology of stealing labour, using forced labor to increase personal wealth, to develop the new colony,” Henry said. .
“It just goes to show that the way of holding black people in bondage was considered commonplace. It was accepted and it was part of the growth of the province,” she said.
“With a bit of luck [the video] generates a little more interest and can be used as an entry point to learn more about the story.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to stories of success within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.