1837 Canada Gives Black Citizens Right To Vote, Though Tumultuously

By | March 23, 2021

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People enter a polling station in Toronto to vote in the federal election to determine the next prime minister. (Getty Images)

The path to equal voting rights in Canada is a long and winding road. While Europeans have inhabited the land since the 1400s, the actual origin of its history with voting unsurprisingly begins with the First Nations people, starting all the way back in the 1200s. The Iroquois Confederacy, composed of the Five Nations of Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida and Seneca, were some of the first people who participated in a voting system we would now identify as democratic. They met in longhouses to settle their respective differences and joined a Grand Council of Chiefs, which decided how the territory would be governed. Both men and women were allowed to have their say, but much changed when European influences took hold over their homeland.

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Stowage of a British slave ship, Brookes (1788). (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

The first Europeans who arrived in Canada were probably the Vikings around the year 1000 C.E., but colonization didn't really begin until the late 1400s, when Italian explorer John Cabot landed on the shores of what would aptly later be named Newfoundland. Many colonizing powers, such as France, England, Spain, and Portugal, claimed different regions of Canada over the next centuries, but Canada was firmly under English control by 1763. During this time, voting was reserved in areas like Nova Scotia for predominantly white Protestant men who had enough property to pay taxes. As you can imagine, that left a lot of people with no political voice whatsoever.

As with most colonies, slavery was an all-too-common institution, oppressing both the Indigenous populations and Africans brought over via the transatlantic slave trade. During this era, black slaves were considered "chattel property" under British law, which meant they not only had no rights but were not legally people at all. Infamously in the trial of the Zong, a British slave ship threw over 200 chained people into the Atlantic Ocean after they ran low on rations and then had the gall to ask for reimbursement from their insurance company for their "property." Amazingly, the British court ruled in favor of the ship, but the case awakened many to the evils of the trade slave, kicking off the abolition movement which eventually led Britain to outlaw slavery altogether in 1833.