Photo by Julia Pelish
Vacay.ca Visuals Editor
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO — When you think about Canada’s multicultural heritage and the nation’s ability to accept different cultures, a case could be made that it all started here, thanks to John Graves Simcoe. Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant-Governor made what is likely his most outstanding contribution to Canadian history (and society everywhere) on this day, July 9, in 1973 with his legal challenge to the institution of slavery. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, Simcoe established the anti-slavery act, making Upper Canada the first place in the British Empire to limit the ownership of another human being.
“Slavery technically remained legal in most of Canada until it was abolished for the entire British Empire in 1834, though slavery as an institution declined steadily after 1793,” a plaque commemorating Simcoe’s feat says in Niagara-on-the-Lake, once called Newark when it was the first capital of Upper Canada.
Thanks to Simcoe, blacks had the right to own property, attend schools and church, find work and pursue a better life. There was racism, of course, and some of it was vicious and ugly and carried on well into the 20th century. But there was also a need for whites in Upper Canada to come to terms with the fact that under the spirit of the law they and their black neighbours were equal. The intolerance of slavery sparked a society that was more tolerant than most.
Simcoe’s law also invigorated the Underground Railroad, the clandestine operation that saw approximately 40,000 slaves escape the United States and reach Canada. Among those slaves was Harriet Tubman, nicknamed the Moses of African-Americans because of her heroic efforts to return again and again to the US to lead others toward safe passage to Canada. Tubman, who died a century ago on March 10, 1913, is credited with helping about 300 freedom seekers make it across the border. A plaque to her efforts is among the black history monuments to be found in this part of Ontario.
Another such attraction is the Steward House, photographed above. It was built by William Steward (also spelled “Stewart”), a former slave who was a member of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s “coloured village,” which included more than 100 blacks — a number that’s higher than the population of that minority group in the community today. Steward and his wife, Susannah, lived in the house from 1834-47 before relocating to Galt, Ontario. The tiny house is now privately owned. It sits on the southwest corner of Butler Street and John Street West (see map below). A plaque outside marks the important role in history played by its original owner.
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