Why They Came

… free men and women seeking a place where they could raise their families,  educate their children, practice their professions, enjoy the results of their hard work, vote, and live without fear and live with equality under the law.

The arrival of the Black Pioneers to B.C. in 1858 was designated as a National Historic Event on September 22, 1997. This plaque was commissioned by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board and was unveiled on February 20, 2000 at the Shady Creek United Church located at 7180 East Saanich Road.  The plaque cites but a few of the earliest black pioneers who came to British Columbia in 1858. Since the mid-19th century, many other blacks have arrived and contributed substantially to this province.

BCBHAS Collection

Gibbs, in his 1902 autobiography writes “Three or four hundred coloured men from California and other states, with their families, settled in Victoria drawn thither by the two-fold inducement – gold discovery and the assurance of enjoying impartially the benefits of constitutional liberty. They built or bought homes or other property; and by industry and character vastly improved their condition and were the recipients of respect and esteem from the community”.

As well, some were “firsts” among teachers, lawyers, and dentists. Their endeavours stabilized those early communities and helped to keep Vancouver Island from American hands

Britain, the British Colonies and the United States Boundary Question
In 1843 the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Victoria on the coast of James Bay, in what is now the City of Victoria. The fort was constructed as a result of American encroachment on British territory. Fearing that the United States would assume control over the Oregon Territory and the lands to the north, the British established the Fort to lay visual claim to the land. In 1851, James Douglas was appointed  governor of the mainland, and the colony of Vancouver Island.
The boundary between the U.S. and British Canada was established at 49° with the Treaty of Oregon in 1846; and that Treaty awarded all of Vancouver Island to Britain.

However, Vancouver Island was sparsely settled and unorganized.  According to the First Victoria Directory published in 1860, it states “ … At a period of less than two years ago (i.e. 1858), the population of Victoria numbered some few hundreds. The inhabitants of the Island consisted of but some twelve to thirty settlers independently of the Hudson’s Bay Company … "  Douglas feared that with the Gold Rush, Americans would try to re-assert their authority over the island, given that a portion of the Island (south of what we now know as Ladysmith) was below the 49th parallel.

Douglas also feared the scarce population on the Island would be defenseless against the thousands of Americans who were arriving in Victoria on their way to the gold fields on the Mainland. He urgently wanted settlers who would be loyal to the British; and he was aware of the situation for Blacks in the United States.

The Black community in California was discontent because of restrictive immigration policies of the California government, ambivalence towards slavery and beatings, insults and legalized injustice. Even free Blacks were denied citizenship. The Zion Church in San Francisco was active in trying to right these injustices and to examine possible emigration to other places. Appearing at one of their meetings was an emissary sent by Douglas, Jeremiah Nagle, captain of the steamship Commodore, which traveled between San Francisco and Victoria. It is said that Nagle delivered a letter, written by Douglas, inviting them to settle in the British North. Among those Blacks attending the meeting were Fortune Richard, Wellington Moses, Archy Lee and Mifflin Gibbs.

Vancouver Island becomes part of Canada
Vancouver Island, with all coastal islands had been constituted as the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1849 but remained a separate British Colony. It was not until 1866, the two British colonies were amalgamated as the United Colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. It was 5 years later in 1871 that the Colony of British Columbia joined Canada; and the 49th Parallel and marine boundaries established by the Oregon Treaty became the Canada–US border.

Shady Creek Church
Shady Creek United Church in Saanich

Migration of Blacks to Canada  
There has been a steady stream of migration of Blacks into Canada via Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States since the 17th century.

The first recorded Black person to arrive in Canada was an African named Mathieu de Coste who arrived in 1608 to serve as an interpreter of the Mi’kmaq language to the governor of Acadia.

17th and 18th Century: A few thousand Africans arrived in Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries as slaves. After the American Revolution, the British gave passage to over 3000 slaves and free Blacks who had remained loyal to the Crown. These Black Loyalists joined the many other United Empire Loyalists in settlements across the Maritime Provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Other Black slaves joined their Loyalist slave owners when they migrated to Canada.

In 1793, the Upper Canada legislature passed an act that granted gradual abolition and any slave arriving in the province was automatically declared free. Fearing for their safety in the United States after the passage of the first Fugitive Slave Law in 1793, over 30,000 slaves came to Canada via the Underground Railroad until the end of the American Civil War in 1865. They settled mostly in southern Ontario, but some also settled in Quebec and Nova Scotia. Many returned to the United States to fight in the Civil War and rejoin their families after its end.

Other migrations of Blacks from the United States occurred during the War of 1812, when over 2000 refugees came to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Another group of over 800 free Blacks from California migrated to Vancouver Island between 1858 and 1860.

Many Blacks migrated to Canada in search of work and became porters with the railroad companies in Ontario, Quebec, and the Western provinces or worked in mines in the Maritimes.  Between 1909 and 1911 over 1500 migrated from Oklahoma as farmers and moved to Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

In 1910 the government of Canada implemented a new Immigration Act that barred immigrants into Canada from races deemed undesirable and very few Blacks entered Canada during the next few decades.

In 1955, the West Indian Domestic Scheme permitted single women aged 18 to 35 and in good health to work in Canada as domestics for one year before being granted immigrant status. Over 2600 women were admitted under this scheme.

In 1967, the government of Canada dropped the racially discriminatory immigration system, after which Black immigration rose dramatically.