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Fleeing North is a time-honoured tradition for U.S. dissidents

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The Underground Railroad

One of the ironies of being an American immigrant to Canada is discovering how many Canadians wish they could immigrate to the States, which they see as a land of opportunity.

Americans do play a certain type of socio-political capitalist game better than most Canadians, but sometimes I think that's because that's all they're taught how to do.  On the other hand, Americans tend to think of Canada as a safe haven, a refuge if all else fails -- like running away to the woods.

"This myth is so strong," writes Jessica Squire in Building Sanctuary: The Movement to Support Vietnam War Resisters in Canada 1965-73, "that the support dimension of the [draft-dodger] story is easily dismissed; after all, part of the myth is that Canada has always been such a haven..."

As she describes in meticulous detail, every aspect of "safe haven" requires hours and hours of daily work. But again I'm stuck with an irony -- the myth persists, precisely because Canadians have so often risen to welcome refugees from wars and injustice in the States and elsewhere.

Take the United Empire Loyalists, whose loyalty and decorum have left their mark on central Canada. Drive along the tourist route through reserves and vineyards in southern Ontario, and you'll spot dozens of bronze plaques, monuments and billboards commemorating the UELs, who immigrated to Canada during and after the American Revolution.

According to a paper by Ann Mackenzie, "Historians estimate that ten to fifteen per cent of the population of the Thirteen Colonies -- some 250,000 people-- opposed the revolution; some passively, others by speaking out, spying, or fighting against the rebels..."

Of those, an estimated 50,000 moved to Canada to show their preference for "peace, order and good government" over "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The United Empire Loyalists Association of Canada lists hundreds of monuments and memorials from P.E.I. to B.C., mainly along the St Lawrence Seaway and in Ontario.

The Canadian Encyclopedia estimates about 40,000 Loyalists emigrated to Canada from 1775 to 1783 -- 30,000 to the Maritimes, 2,000 to Quebec, and 7,500 to Ontario.

"Though greatly outnumbered by later immigrants," says the encyclopedia article, "Loyalists and their descendants, such as Egerton Ryerson, exerted a strong and lasting influence.

"Modern Canada has inherited much from the Loyalists, including a certain conservatism, a preference for 'evolution' rather than 'revolution' in matters of government, and tendencies towards a pluralistic and multi-ethnic society."

All kinds of people were Loyalists: most were farmers, labourers, tradespeople and their families, according to the Encyclopedia, and of varied cultural backgrounds. "White Loyalists brought large numbers of slaves with them. Until 1834, slavery was legal in all British North American colonies but Upper Canada, where the institution was being phased out."

In fact, another 2,000 Loyalist immigrants were freed slaves and Six Nations warriors who'd fought for the Queen as well. Lawrence Hill's famous The Book of Negroes deals with the life of a black Loyalist who immigrated to Canada and ultimately went back to Africa. Loyalists estimate that one in 10 Canadians has a UEL ancestor.  

As the Loyalists were settling in to found family dynasties, another group started to arrive. The Underground Railroad began in the 1780s and peaked between 1840 and 1860, helping escaped slaves reach safety in slavery-free Canada.

Since Southern states had laws against teaching slaves to read or write -- or giving them shoes -- Blacks used work songs to spread instructions about how to travel north. The song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd," urges runaways to find and follow the North Star. The "drinking gourd" is the Big Dipper.

"It is impossible to know for certain how many slaves found freedom by way of the railroad, but it may have been as many as 30,000," says Black History Canada. "The railroad's traffic reached its peak between 1840 and 1860, especially after the US passed its Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

"The new law allowed slave hunters to pursue and capture enslaved persons in places where they would legally be free. It resulted in several attempts to kidnap escapees in Canada and return them to former owners in the Southern States..."

Other Black people already lived in Canada, before the Loyalists. Mathieu Da Costa was the first named black person to arrive in Canada, in 1605, as a free man and a translator for Samuel de Champlain.

Thousands of Black soldiers served as troopers in the War of 1812, to prevent a U.S. victory that might lead to a return to slavery. The British promised them freedom, and land, says Black History Canada. Black soldiers won recognition for their service during the war, and spread the word among their kin that they received kind treatment in Canada.

In 1819, Lower Canada's Attorney General John Beverley Robinson stated openly that residence in "Canada" made Blacks free and Upper Canada began offering land grants to Black veterans.

In 1851, Toronto was the site of the first North American Convention of Colored Freemen. The BHC website says that, "Hundreds of Blacks from all over Canada, the northern United States and England attended, where speakers included H.C. Bibb, Josiah Henson and J.T. Fisher."

In 1853, Mary Shadd and her brother Isaac fled Virginia for Windsor and began publishing the first abolitionist newspaper, The Provincial Freeman. This made Mary Shadd the first publisher of colour in North America. In 1866, Mifflin Gibbs won a seat on the Victoria Town Council, becoming the first black elected politician in Canada.

But in 1911, Alberta's Frank Oliver wanted tighter controls on immigration. "He became the Liberal government's Minister of the Interior in 1905," says a government of Canada immigration policy timeline.

"Oliver was staunchly British, and his policies favoured nationality over occupation. By 1911, he was able to assert that his immigration policy was more 'restrictive, exclusive and selective' than his predecessor's."

The racist spirit of Frank Oliver's law was not dismantled until 1962, when PM John Diefenbaker asked Ellen Fairclough (the first woman federal Cabinet Minister) to clean up the Immigration Act and the department too.

To be continued.

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