Without this law in place, it is certain that the underground railway would never have properly happened. Too many laws on property would have interfered. It is even possible that emancipation may also have been delayed. Certainly by this act, he made one place in the British Empire slave free and gave life to the abolitionists in London who could point to one place that it worked just fine.
Perhaps we will never know a lot about him or even his reasons, but to take this action at this time was a break with history that few men are able to accomplish. That the Quakers and some religious groups were agitating is certainly true, but at this time it was very much a minority opinion by fringe participants. The great propaganda attacks were all in the future or had barely begun and they all were in London anyway.
So for Simcoe to step up and bring this about was extraordinary, although he must have had the constituency behind him to pull it off.
Today, slavery still very much exists in many forms, usually through the exploitation of illiterate children sold into the sex trade of SE Asia in particular. More classical slavery as we understand it is still extant in Africa in places. Our press has chosen to ignore all that, mostly because of a lingering European helplessness when confronted with the reality of subsistence life ways and nascent barbarism.
The next two generations will belong to the rest of the world and we are already hearing from them. It is still hard to stand by and be only a cheerleader.
Remembering the man who put slavery on notice
The first step toward freedom from servitude was taken right here in Canada by John Graves Simcoe
From Monday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Friday, Jul. 31, 2009 07:18PM EDT
Few may know that today's civic holiday in Toronto is officially called “Simcoe Day” – and fewer still may know why this man should be honoured with a day named just for him.
If we learn that in 1791, John Graves Simcoe was Upper Canada's first lieutenant-governor, that may not interest us very much unless we love history – and then we would have known it anyway. So why honour an 18th-century British soldier in 2009?
One very good reason. He was the first political leader to challenge slavery effectively. As an institution, slavery was then as old as Western civilization, and one that had already invaded this brand new colony.
Nonetheless, when the first legislature of Upper Canada reputedly met under an oak tree in Newark (as Niagara-on-the-Lake was called then), Simcoe proposed that slavery be outlawed.
This vice-regal proposal, however, met a chilly reception from some of the legislators, especially those who were slave owners themselves. So government being the art of the possible, Simcoe proposed a more moderate action that would allow these colonists to keep their slaves, but also spell the end of slavery in this new colony.
The proposal was that while slave owners could keep their bond servants with them, no slaves could be imported, bought or sold in Upper Canada. Also, that all slave children born in the province would receive their freedom at 25 years of age.
As an institution, that legislation, passed in 1793, put slavery on borrowed time, its end coming inexorably in one generation. And compromising as Simcoe's deal with his slave-owning legislators can seem to zealots now, it was a pioneering leap forward.
It would be decades before slavery would be abolished throughout the British Empire, and generations before the United States would fight a savage war to end the savagery of slavery. But the first step toward freedom from servitude was taken right here in Canada.
Rather than puffing our chests out with patriotic pride though, Simcoe's 18th-century leadership should impact dynamically on our 21st-century social consciences.
The United Nations estimates there are more slaves in the world now than there have ever been. Mostly Asian, millions of young women are reported to be “sex slaves” in the Western countries to which they were naively induced to emigrate with the enticement of good jobs – only to find they had to market their young bodies with no serious hope of ever gaining their freedom.
How many of them may be in Toronto, the city that eventually became the capital of Upper Canada? Nobody knows since neither the mayor nor the police chief seems to have made an effort to discover if there is still slavery here more than 200 years after it was thought to have been abolished.
But wouldn't this Simcoe Day be a good time to find out?
Reginald Stackhouse is principal emeritus and research professor at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.