Slavery in French Canada

As we’ve discussed before, Americans often think of a slavery as an institution only of the American south. But slavery was a scourge felt around the world to one extent of another. This includes our French-Canadian ancestral home.

Slavery’s roots in Canada pre-date European settlement. Indigenous tribes used captured member of other tribes as slaves.  After European settlement started, tribes would often trade their slaves to the French as well. They came to be called Panis, because so many of them came from the Pawnee, but the term eventually came to mean all slaves from the indigenous people.

Historians estimate that by the end of the eighteenth century, about 25% of the population of the US was comprised of slaves. In Canada, however, it was only about 6–8%. Unlike the American south, which built its economy on slavery, the economy in French Canada was not dependent on forced labor to manage large, single-crop farms.

Most of the slaves in French Canada were used as domestic servants.  The Catholic church owned many of them. Others belonged to public officials, military officers, merchants, and other upper-class individuals. The Jesuit Relations, writings of seventeenth-century Catholic missionaries in French Canada, contain a great number of stories about the indigenous people and slavery. 

The Treaty of Paris in 1763 resulted in Panis enslavement all but disappearing by the turn of the century. The Slavery Abolition Act passed by parliament in 1833 ended the entire barbaric practice everywhere in the British Empire, including Canada.

You can read more about slavery in French Canada in the Canadian Encylcopedia, and Marcel Trudel’s Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Centuries of Bondage. A special compilation of the Jesuit Relations that pertain specifically to the topic of the interactions with the native peoples was published by Allan Greer in 2000.

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