Canada: The Promised Land

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“Canada: The Promised Land”
Rev. Stephen Milton Lawrence Park Community Church
February 12, 2023 Deuteronomy 8:1; 30:15-20.  

In today’s scripture, we hear the words of God as the Israelites are posed to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. They have been wandering through the desert for 40 years. It should be a rousing speech, but instead, it sounds ominous.

God warns them that how things go in the land of Israel will depend on how they behave. If they chose to ignore God and choose the idols and false gods of other religions, this land will be a place of hardship, not promise. They will need to stay true to the ethics God has taught them with the ten commandments. Loving God, treating each other ethically. There is a very real danger they will be distracted by the religions and ways of the people who live in the land on the other side of the Jordan. But if they stay true to God’s ways, then this will truly be a Promised Land, a place of deliverance from hardship, and they will never be enslaved again.  

That longing for escape to a Promised Land has been felt by peoples all over the world ever since. In the 1800s, enslaved Black people in the American South dreamed of a Promised Land that could offer them freedom. They thought about it, talked about it, and sang about it. Knowing that their white slave masters would punish them for talking about escape, they adopted a kind of code. In their songs, the Jordan became code for the state lines they must cross to reach the freedom of the North. References to reaching heaven and Canaan meant arriving in a land where they could be free, the Promised Land. Not in heaven, but in this life.[1]  

And for many years, the Promised Land meant Canada. We were the promised land, the place they wanted to escape to. Canadians take great Pride in this, knowing that we were the destination of the underground railway. Escaped fugitives from slavery travelled at night through the South, staying at safe houses in the Northern United States, and finally crossing the Detroit River to reach southern Ontario. Some even swam across the river, their Jordan, to reach safety here.  

That account is accurate, but it leaves too much out. The fact is that the underground railway did not bring that many Black people to Canada each year. It was a hard journey, dangerous and risky, and many couldn’t start it, much less finish it. It began after the war of 1812, and over the years that followed, a trickle of Black people arrived in Canada each year. But that trickle became a flood in 1850. That was the year that the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. It gave southern slave owners the right to send bounty hunters into the Northern States, where they could hunt down, arrest and kidnap people they believed were escaped slaves. Local law enforcement officials were expected to co-operate. Overnight, the Northern States were no longer safe for any Black person who had escaped slavery. They might have been free for a week or for ten years, but they could still be legally dragged back into slavery.

Overnight, thousands of Blacks in the North were looking for a place where they could be free. In the 1850s, there was great debate about where they should go. Some Blacks and whites argued they would be better off going back to Africa, to form their own colonies there, in places like Liberia.[2] Others argued for Haiti.[3] Still others said they should stand and fight for their rights in the U.S. But many hoped that Canada could be their Promised Land. Their problem was that they didn’t know much about it, or how it treated Black people.  

The need for information was intense, and much of it came from a newspaper founded by a Black woman in the early 1850s. Her name was Mary Ann Shadd. This is the only picture of her. She was a light-skinned Black woman, born and raised free in Delaware.    

She came to Canada in 1851 to create a racially integrated private school near Windsor. But soon, Shadd found that the Black parents she met knew too little about Ontario before they arrived. They needed reliable information. So, she moved to Toronto and started a newspaper called the Provincial Freeman. It featured articles about life in Ontario, as well as updates on what was happening to Blacks in the United States.  

She  was fiercely proud of Ontario’s laws which gave full freedom to Blacks:  

Shadd quote our government will give them 100 acres of land, in a region where now she gives the same to Norwegians, Irish, English and Scotch, and where coloured men can get it if they will, or they can settle down readily, and do well in this western section, with friends and relatives to help them along.[4]    

In the 1850s they were 47,000 people in Toronto, 1,000 of whom were Black.[5] Most lived in the area around where the Eaton Centre is now, a neighbourhood known as the ward. They had barbershops and fruit stalls and other businesses in the St Lawrence Market area. Some were doctors, others were labourers, some were teachers. The schools in Toronto at this time were fully integrated. Blacks and whites sat together in churches, on trains and in restaurants. Torontonians took great pride in being unlike the Americans.  

Toronto looked even better in 1859. That year, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that Blacks did not qualify as citizens in the U.S. – legally, they had no rights at all, anywhere in the country.[6] It was a crushing blow, and laid the ground for the Civil War. Fugitives to Canada increased again.  

But for those outside Toronto, this Promised Land had problems. Mary Ann Shadd had found that the whites in the towns near Windsor did not want their kids going to school with Black children. Officially, Ontario only had separate school boards based on religion. But in practice, wherever towns had large Black populations, local whites insisted that the Blacks go to separate schools as well. Toronto was an exception to this rule, but most Blacks lived outside Toronto.   The first editor at Mary Anne Shadd’s paper was the Black Abolitionist Samuel R. Ward. He wrote a series of articles about Canadian racism. He noted that in the US, racism was expressed explicitly in legislation. In Canada, the laws of the British empire stated clearly that everyone was equal. But in practice, whites often refused to allow Blacks to buy seats in steamship cabins, or be seated in restaurants and bars. Racism was informal here, up to the individual, more polite. He argued that: 

Samuel R. Ward quote “Ours is an aristocratic country. … A black gentleman of good education, polite manners and courtly address would be received as a gentleman, while a white man destitute of these would not be so received. Then, too, as wealth enters largely into a man’s position here, it is not to be wondered at that our people should be treated in Canada as other poor people. “[7]   

Ward believed that as Black people climbed out of poverty, they would be treated better. He argued that anti-Black racism was doomed to die out in Canada.  

Canada’s potential as the Promised Land changed when the Civil War broke out in the United States in 1861.[8] Many Blacks in Canada signed up to fight in the Northern armies. They were afraid that if the South won, it would try to invade Canada and impose slavery here. Mary Ann was invited by the Northern Army to travel through the free states to convince Black men to enlist. Her newspaper had shut down due to a lack of subscribers. She needed the money, and she believed in the cause. She used her Canadian passport to enter the United States.  

When the Civil War ended, and slavery was abolished, it seemed to Mary Ann and other Blacks in Canada that the United States had finally become the Promised Land they were hoping for. Many Blacks in Canada yearned to be reunited with their families. The simmering racism of Ontario drove many away. So, Blacks in Canada left en masse in the later 1860s. The Black towns near Windsor emptied out. Large numbers of Black people went back to the U.S.   Mary Ann decided to stay in the United States, too. She enrolled at the nation’s first Black university, Howard, and became the first African American woman to get into  law school.[9] But after a year, she dropped out. Her day job as the principal of an integrated elementary school made it impossible to go to university, too. And in the 1870s, she watched as the gains of the Civil War were dialed back. When a Republican won the presidency in a contested election, the southern states demanded a compromise to allow him to stay in power. They wanted federal troops to leave the South. When the soldiers left, the southern states felt free to reinstate racist laws and begin the era of segregation and Jim Crow. The United States broke its promise to be the Promised Land. But this time, Blacks stayed in America, knowing from experience that they were not welcome in Canada.  

In today’s scripture, God tells the Israelites that a Promised Land lies on the other side of the Jordan, but its promise lies with them, not the land. It will be how they behave that will decide whether God supports them or not. The land itself will not guarantee success, that will depend on their relationship to God and how they treat each other.   In 1850, Canada seemed like a Promised Land to Blacks like Mary Anne Shadd. Today, once again, a white backlash against Blacks is underway in the United States. Women of colour use abortion most, due to poverty. The repeal of abortion laws is yet another way to hold them back economically.  

States like Florida have passed laws making it impossible to talk about systemic racism in schools.[10] Here in Canada, we still like to think of ourselves as less racist than the Americans.[11]  

Yet, Blacks are over-represented among the homeless, prison populations, and students suspended from schools. Our laws still embrace equality, but racism persists in how they are applied. Canadian Blacks still object to the strategy of “polite racism” here.   We have the ability to be the Promised Land for people of all races. We can live up to the promise of our laws by speaking up as allies when we hear about racism undermining the lives of Blacks and other people of colour. Part of that is being more humble, paying attention and listening to learn about the lived experience of black Canadians. We must be willing to get past denial and be ready to do the work against a racism that has been going strong for a very long time.     

The fight for equality is ongoing, and no one should ever have to give up. Mary Ann Shadd didn’t. At the age of 60 she finally finished her law degree.[12] She was not admitted to the Bar because she was a Black woman. Nonetheless, she became a lawyer for Black clients, determined to defend their rights, even as segregation returned. She kept fighting, certain that Black people were just as capable as anyone else. She died at the age of 70. She is now remembered as North America’s first Black woman newspaper publisher, for a paper she started here.  

May we join her in the fight to make this country a Promised Land for all those who yearn for equality.  



[1] Charshee Charlotte Lawrence-McIntyre , “The Double Meanings of the Spirituals,” Journal of Black Studies , Jun., 1987, Vol. 17, No. 4 pp. 379-401   [2] Jane Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century,(Bloomington, 1998),119. [3] Jane Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, 139. [4] Jane Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, 141. [5] Karolyn Smardz Frost, “A Fresh Start: Black Toronto in the 19th century,” The Ward, Ed. John Lorinc et al, (Toronto, 2015), 67.   [6] [7] Samuel R. Ward, “Canadian Nego Hate,” The Voice of the Fugitive, Nov 4, 1852, p.3. [8] [9] Jane Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, 185. [10] [11] Debra Thompson, The Long Road home, 41. [12] Jane Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, 209