Robin Winks. The Blacks of Canada: A History. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997. [ISBN 0-7735-1632-8]
Once again February rolls around and thus Black History Month. In celebration of this, I call attention to the vital and quintessential work on African Canadian history by Robin Winks. Although Africans first visited the coastal region of Canada during early exploration, the first slavery in New France occurred in 1628. Slavery continued in New France beyond the Conquest.
Winks’ history spans over 350 years of the rich history of these African Canadians. The first great migration followed our American Revolution when Loyalists fled to the northern colony with their servants. Many of these servants found their new homes in Nova Scotia especially in the Halifax area known as Africville.
Slavery ended in Canada in part as a result of the works of Lord Simcoe. Shortly thereafter Canada became a safe haven for refugees from American slavery. Winks writes vivid accounts of the fugitive communities in the Ontario region such as Dresden, Puce, and Elgin [North Buxton] and the numerous other small villages. While these self sustaining communities dotted the wilderness and countryside, the new residents did not always find welcoming committees among their neighbors.
Readers learn of the role of Canada in the abolitionist movement and the post Civil War era. Some who had fled to the “Canadian Canaan” found themselves thrust into the limelight such as Josiah Henson, reputed to be the original Uncle Tom of Harriet Beecher Stowe fame. Others returned to the areas south of the border to actively support the Union armies in some cases as spies or aides. After the conflict still others assisted in Reconstruction. All of this is chronicled in this history.
Winks devotes three chapters to the three pillars of African Canadian strength—the church, the educational institutions and the press. He did not end this history at the turn of the century but continued until his original work was published in the early 1970s.
If an educator wants the classic work on African Canadians, they should obtain a copy of The Blacks of Canada: A History. Other works of history tend to focus on small facets of this story; Winks work covers the breadth of the history of an important cultural and ethnic group in Canada.