Heaven – The Promised Land

Considered heaven, Canada was known to all passengers aboard the freedom train as a true safe haven. Because the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 demanded that Northerners arrest and return any escaped slaves who reached the North, it was difficult for those seeking freedom to live freely. Even though passengers made it along the tracks into free states, they grew tired of constantly fearing that they would be captured by lawmen or slave hunters and sent back to the South. Because of the Fugitive Slave Act, passengers would stay aboard the freedom train all the way to heaven. During this time, the American government asked the Canadian government if it would return slaves who escaped across the borders, and also allow lawmen and slave hunters to cross borders into Canada in order to retrieve slaves. The Canadian Government refused. Abolishing slavery decades before the United States, Canada became a haven for enslaved people seeking freedom.

John Graves Simcoe served as a British officer in the American Revolutionary War. Returning to Canada after the war, Simcoe realized he believed strongly in the abolitionist movement after seeing the way enslaved human beings were treated in America. He knew there was more that could be done to help enslaved African-Americans. After becoming the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, Simcoe immediately passed legislation that would put an end to slavery. By 1793, Upper Canada passed the Upper Canada Abolition Act (the Anti-Slavery Act of 1793), which over time abolished slavery by providing the emancipation of slave children at age 25 and the restriction of any further enslavement. Shortly thereafter, the restriction was extended into Lower Canada, and by 1820, slavery was extinct in the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Simcoe’s act was the first to limit slavery throughout the British empire and helped to bring about the Emancipation Act of 1833, which abolished slavery in all of Britain, including Canada and the other colonies.

“When my feet first touched the Canada shore, I threw myself on the ground, rolled on the sand, seized handfuls of it and kissed them and danced around, till in the eyes of several who were present, I passed for a madman.”
- Josiah Henson

More than 40,000 fugitives made it to the promise land aboard the Underground Railroad. With the excitement of freedom also came the fear of unfamiliar territory. New lives did not come easy for those who had escaped to freedom with their families. Most passengers had absolutely no money and were faced with the task of having to worry about survival for themselves and their family. With no formal education, money, place to live or food to eat, survival was not always easy. The Canadian government made cheap land available as a way of encouraging former slaves to settle in Canada. Once they were able to find a job, and after a few years of hard work, most former slaves were able to purchase land. Since there were so many paths to liberty, these people settled in and around the Great Lakes. In Canada, those who were formerly enslaved could vote, own land, serve on juries and go to public schools and college. And though it did not come easy, African-Americans in Canada did have the same rights as white immigrants.