The latest Heritage Minute highlights Canada’s history of slavery and the path that led to its eventual demise — a story that “needed to be told,” according the head of the organization behind the series.
The video focuses on Chloe Cooley, an enslaved Black woman living in the Niagara Region in what was known as Upper Canada in the late 18th century.
It’s not the first time Heritage Minutes have touched on darker parts of Canada’s history, or the struggles of Black Canadians. But it is among the first illustrating the prevalence of slavery in the years leading up to Confederation.
Historians and academics say they hope it’ll lead to more discussion about the little-known-history of Black slavery in the colonies that became Canada.
“We realized that the history of slavery within what would become Canada was not known and needed to be told,” said Anthony Wilson-Smith, president and CEO of Historica Canada, the not-for-profit organization behind Heritage Minutes.
“You can’t only tell good stories because you need the awareness that we have to do better in certain areas.”
The story of Chloe Cooley
As rumblings of abolition grew louder in the late 18th century, historians say Cooley began to rebel against her “owner,” Adam Vrooman, by refusing to work or temporarily leaving the property without permission.
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 her violent capture and her resistance, which led to a piece of legislation called the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada.
Historica Canada chose OYA Media group — a production company led by Black women — to produce the video. It was shot over two days in Westfield Heritage Village west of Hamilton and the Hamilton Conservation area.
“It has this hard, emotional punch to it because we had to represent what Chloe went through, and we couldn’t hold any punches,” said Alison Duke, one of the producers and the director of the video. She said the goal was to tell the true story of slavery in Canada.
“And it wasn’t a nice slavery. It wasn’t a more sanitized version than what you see on television in the States or what you hear about and read about in the history books. It was just as brutal.”
Many of the team members who made the video say they grew up watching Heritage Minutes and often didn’t see their histories reflected.
| The making of the Heritage Minutes video on slavery in Upper Canada:
“I think 2020 kind of put a spotlight on the lack of this content,” said Ngardy Conteh George, one of the video’s producers, referring to the widespread demonstrations sparked by the murder of George Floyd two years ago by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minn.
“We can definitely look at there being a lack of understanding of our experiences because there’s not a 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 reenacting the story was emotional.
“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 before, is what propelled the push to come north, because this law changed so much,” said Barrett.
Historica Canada says in just over a month the video has amassed 1.2 million views,
“Through this one minute retelling of her story, it does contribute to increasing awareness,” said Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society.
Henry says what’s often overlooked in Cooley’s story is that it still took 30 more years after the incident for slavery to be abolished entirely, and it continued well into the 1820s.
“Half of the politicians in the provincial government themselves held property in slaves, and so they did not want immediate emancipation.”
As part of her doctoral research, she’s extensively studied the experiences of Black people who were enslaved in Upper Canada. She says Niagara was one of the areas in the province that had one of the highest concentrations of enslaved people.
“That again is something that is downplayed: that it was the ideology of stealing labour, of using forced labour to grow personal wealth, to grow the new colony,” said Henry.
“it just speaks to the way that holding Black people in bondage was viewed as common. It was accepted, and it was part of the growth of the province,” she said.
“Hopefully [the video] sparks some more interest and can be used as an entry point to further learn about the story.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.