About the Film

UPDATE: Due to a number of events and circumstances, the project is currently on hiatus and in the process of being re-envisioned. More updates will be made as details become available. Thank you for your continued interest and support.

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History is not the past, it is how we recount the past. A Past, Denied: The Invisible History of Slavery in Canada is a feature-length documentary by independent filmmaker Mike Barber. The film, which is currently in production, explores how a false sense of history—both taught in the classroom and repeated throughout our national historical narrative—impinges on the present. It examins how 200 years of institutional slavery during Canada’s formation has been kept out of Canadian classrooms, textbooks and social consiousness.

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The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade effectively started in 1444 when Portuguese pirates, operating under the auspices of Prince Henrique, kidnapped 235 Africans from a village near the mouth of the Senegal River and brought them back to Portugal where they were sold as slaves. From that point forward, over 15,000,000 Africans would be forcibly removed from their homeland and sold into slavery in Europe and the Americas; over 30,000,000 others would die in slave wars, work camps, or during transit aboard slave ships until the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade ended in the 1860s.

Today in North America, the use of African slave labour is seen as a uniquely American institution. Canada is reputed as being the promised land to the North to where slaves could escape and live as free men and women. The Underground Railroad is our claim to fame, and we toot that horn proudly. Our history textbooks—and much less, our national historical narrative—rarely, if ever mention the two centuries of institutionalized slavery and its role in the founding of Canada.

The version of history taught in Canadian schools tends to serve the interests of nationalist pride rather than education. Figures such as René Bourassa, Colin McNabb, Joseph Papineau and Peter Russell have been made into historical icons, honoured in our texts and on our landscape. All were slave owners and some were rabid advocates of slavery, though today one would never know it. Among the multitude of authoritative biographies on such founding figures, these facts have a tendency to escape any mention, either because the authors chose not to include these facts or because they simply were not aware. Whether this act of censorship is intentional or not the error is compounded, the cycle of ignorance is perpetuated.

History Matters

The subtle underlying message this selective and filtered history conveys is one of white superiority. When students are taught that it is only white people who tend to do anything of historical importance it effectively instils them with a “white people belong on top, people of colour belong on the bottom” outlook on the world. Fed the same false sense of history, white students feel good about their heritage at the expense of non-white students who feel alienated to the point that they begin to tune out. According to figures from the Toronto District School Board, by age 16 more than half of black male teens are at risk of dropping out. In Montréal, the dropout rate among black youth is an estimated 48 per cent. The history curriculum is not solely responsible for these alarming statistics, but it is culpable.

There is a direct cause-and-effect relationship with our collective past and our collective present, as well as our collective future. To fully understand the context of current conflicts and events, we need to know the relevant past and its causal relationship. In his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, historian and sociologist James Loewen explains “slavery’s twin legacies” to the present as “the social and economic inferiority it conferred upon blacks and the cultural racism it instilled in whites.” Both of which, he adds, “continue to haunt our society.” Removing this substantial part of our nation’s development from our historical narrative is not just an academic or moral problem. It has deprived and continues to deprive generations of the ability to identify “the dynamic interplay between slavery as a socioeconomic system and racism as an idea system.”

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53 comments

  1. Looks like a fascinating project. I’m very excited to share this with my students.

  2. Wow, is all I can say. Were any slave narratives published? There’s so much more I want to know. Congratulations and thank you for your courageousness and for bringing this subject ‘out in the open’.

  3. I can’t stress enough how important this film will be not only to me but to all Canadians. The full truth about our history must be told.

  4. Looks like a great documentary, this is something people need to watch and learn about the ugly truth of the past…

  5. I had no idea! I had always heard about the underground railroad operating south to north not the other may around. Got to see this documentary.

  6. It is mentionned here that Papineau was a slave owner, and, while I I am not an expert in history, I am curious to know if it is the same Papineau who presented a petition to abolish slavery, as reported here : http://www.histoiredesnoirsaucanada.com/timeline.php?id=1700&PHPSESSID=8d21a0ad928144032e2cf08159882e95

    “1799 : Papineau présente, au nom des citoyens, une pétition visant à abolir l’esclavage au Bas-Canada
    En 1799, Joseph Papineau (père de Louis-Joseph Papineau) présenta une pétition de la part des citoyens demandant au gouvernement d’abolir l’esclavage, ce qui donna lieu à une série de mesures antiesclavagistes. Bien que ces projets de loi furent défaits, la société cheminait tout de même vers l’abolition de l’esclavage au Bas-Canada.”

  7. To J. Desroches
    You are indeed correct. It was the same Papineau. He petitioned the government 3 times on behalf of the slave-owners of Montreal.

  8. Be sure I´ll be back. Found this great blog by searching for race film

  9. When can we expect this to be released?

    • Greetings Alston,
      Thank you for your comment. It’s hard to say at the moment. There is still much shooting to be done, but without any funding right now (other than what I manage to save up myself) it is difficult to predict.

  10. Hi There! I didn’t realize how important A Past, Denied was. What books and or research did you do to come up with you information?

  11. Blaspirit says:

    Hi Mr , This is a great new for everyone in the worldwide because Canada peinted is dark side with his Peace Maker and generosity Color . So the World must know the story not only canadians. I am an African-canadian . I am available for you as actor or volonteer for this Slavery story doc… You need help to make this hapen right . Please contact me anytime if you need head for your Docu.thanks for tour great job.

  12. Mallorca says:

    There is obviously a lot more than this. Would you mind telling me how long it took you to gather your content?

  13. Kelly Ray says:

    I am inspired by your dedication and loyalty to such a project. I learned a lot when researching the “schooling of Natives” in Canada and “abuse/ disappearance” of many children. People of color have endured so much oppression at the hands of whites. I wish I had money to give you…I was just as intrigued to read your post on not being able to get a page on Face Book. I went to check and saw that you had a page so I’ll be a fan and spread the word!

    Keep up your work, don’t give up.

    • Greetings Kelly, thank you for your comment and support. My search for funding continues, but in the meantime moral support in the form of spreading the word is just as helpful.

  14. This is going to be a fascinating documentary! Every eye should be open to it’s past~ the proudful, and if it exists, the shameful too. It is the only way to have an honest concept of “self” and individuals and as a country.

    Bravo, Mr. Barber!

  15. Hi, Mike,
    I applaud your strength and insistance at exposing the truth. The public school system in North America has perpetuated lies in all subjects; it is no surprise that history has been distorted to reflect a “new truth”. While we have little money, as a school where we value the Truth above all else, we teach what Canadians need to hear.
    If there is any way we can help you spread the word, please let us know.

  16. Rarihokwats says:

    I hope there is room in your excellent film project to include the fact that for much of Canada’s history of slavery there were more native people kept as slaves than there were Black slaves. The data is well documented — it is just overlooked. Strength and clarity of mind and purpose to you in your work. Best regards.

    • Greetings Rarihokwats, there certainly is. I only started with coverage of African slaves because that was what information was most readily available to me as I started out. I absolutely will be including the indigenous people who, as you have mentioned, are often overlooked. If you have any suggestions for interviewees from the native community or other resources, please do pass them along!

  17. Robyn Atwell says:

    When will the documentary be finished?

  18. charlles fox says:

    I am passionate, and consider myself reasonably well versed in,
    history yet this is news to me.
    This is a vital work you have taken on.
    Important for every race in canada to be aware of.
    Thanks, and power to you !

  19. As a descendant of a slave from Kentucky that came north and a descendant of one of African descendant born in Canada in 1840, I am well aware of slavery in Canada. The you tube clip makes it sound like Canada is deliberately keeping this a secret when it may just be that people simply don’t know or have not investigated far enough. Native Canadians had slaves also. I will pray that this documentary does not turn into a negative for Canadian history but an informative tool to educate our students about a group of people that have survived by faith and strength horrible situations. That is what I am proud to be a legacy of!

    • Greetings Lezlie, I apologize for the very late reply. Life has been distracting me from giving this blog the attention it deserves. There has been and continues to be an effort to deliberately keep knowledge of Canada’s involvement in the slave trade out of the class rooms and history books. I’m not saying there is any sort of planned conspiracy, but decisions made in the past and present reflect an active decision to not talk about it. In the very first book on the history of Nouvelle France (which for a long time was used as a primary source by historians), the author—who grew up during the period that slavery was practiced—deliberately lied and claimed that the French colony never had slaves. In modern times, despite the deep scholarly works of historian Marcel Trudel to document the facts, those who are in the position to influence and shape curriculum chose to not include the subject. It is true there are those who simply don’t know, but there are also those who do and have made the choice to ignore it.

      It is true, there were aboriginal communities that had slaves; aboriginal people were also slaves. In fact, the majority of slaves under colonial rule in Canada were Aboriginal rather than African.

      I am curious, can you elaborate on what you mean by your concern of “a negative for Canadian history”? I would very much welcome your thoughts on this subject.

  20. Thank you for your work, Mike. I am an African Native American descendant of Cherokee and slaves of Kentucky and Georgia. I am working on my own film about Ohio’s participation in the Underground Railroad. Since I am in the process of moving to Canada, this project has personal importance to me. In spite of a shared history of the disgrace of sanctioned slave ownership, it seems that the US and Canada do not share the same responses to the legacy. I hope that your film will address the differences between the two nations and their respective willingness/unwillingness to admit wrongdoing. The US is one of a handful of countries that refused to sign the international statement by the UN acknowledging that Trans-Atlantic slave trade was a world wide tragedy. I look forward to your film.

    • Greetings Dena, I apologize for the very late reply. As I mentioned in my reply to Lezlie (above), life has been distracting me from giving this blog the attention it deserves. You are correct that the US and Canada’s responses have been different. Part of that is greatly due to the way in which the institution of slavery was practiced between the different regions. Slavery in the Atlantic region was different from slavery in Nouvelle France which was different from slavery in Upper Canada. They way slavery was abolished was also very different; for example, Canada didn’t need to go through a civil war to reach that end. Rest assured, I certainly am addressing some of these nuanced differences in the film. Best of luck on your film, too! Please keep me informed about your progress!

  21. When i learned earlier this year that Canada didn’t abolish slavery until 1833 but 7 or 8 U.S. States had done so already, it made me wonder why ppl would be running up here prior to 1833 so i went digging for information. I have always been uninterested in Canadian history because there was no mention of my ppl. I have a new found zeal to go back into studying Canadian history and finding out all the facts about our ppl so i can pass them on to my children. I hope this doc will be a major tool in my education. Also, could you address the prior comment about Natives owning slaves and about this doc possibly being more harmful than good. Good luck getting this dona A.S.A.P.

    • Greetings Vince, I apologize for the very late reply. It is my hopes that this documentary can be a tool for many people’s education. Knowledge is power, and I wish to enable others through the sharing of information and the truth about our country’s history so that we may understand the roots of racism and racial inequity within our society.

      Lezlie’s comment about Natives owning slaves is true, there were aboriginal communities that had slaves; aboriginal people were also slaves. In fact, the majority of slaves under colonial rule in Canada were Aboriginal rather than African. This history is also complex and nuanced and—like forms of slavery practiced by different African tribes—cannot be accurately compared to the European industry of chattel slavery. This is an important subject that will be included in the documentary.

  22. Wow! What a wonderful project. Please keep me posted about screenings in Toronto. Or if you’re going to make copies to sell, I’d love to get one and organize small events to show it at. Such an important history/reality to share. Thanks.

    • Thank you for the support Shelly! I’m a bit far from the point of doing any screenings right now, but will be sure to let you know when I get there!

  23. Just as Afua Cooper has remarked in her book, The Hanging of Angelique, it is entirely possible to graduate from a Canadian university with a Canadian Studies degree and not know that there was slavery in Canada. In a few months I will hold a degree in Canadian History and I’ve only stumbled upon this aspect of our past in one class. The topic was not addressed in class (History of pre-1867 Canada) at all, but was offered in one of several books to choose from for a reading assignment. We should be embarrassed. Denying that we had slavery in Canada is to deny the humanity and experience of the thousands of people who suffered, and continue to suffer as a result of it. Canadians have a lot to be proud of, but by writing and teaching selective fragments of our history, we’re not only doing a disservice to those who suffered, but we’re also perpetuating the myth that “nothing happened” in Canada that’s worth learning about. If we want Canadians to feel attached to their country on an intellectual level, and not just because we’re “peace keepers,” which is based on outdated government policy and doesn’t even apply today, we need Canadians to truly understand where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we need to go. Denial of our past is counterproductive in terms of building nationalist sentiment. It makes people reject basic truths in response to the dishonest curriculum. If we can’t trust our teachers, policy makers or leaders to tell us the truth about our history, how can we trust them to guide us into the future?

    • Greetings Kira, thank you for sharing this with us! It is indeed a disservice to all that we continue to “white wash” our history. The truth must be spoken, no matter how uncomfortable it is to us. As a society, we have so much more to gain from telling the truth about our collective past than we do in painting a false picture.

  24. Can I have some background on the woman featured in the video? And are any other clips from the film available yet?

    • The teaser features Montreal-based historian Dr. Dorothy Williams. She is the author of a few books, including “The Road to Now: A History of Blacks in Montreal”. Her website is http://www.dorothywilliams.ca/. Right now I am not making any other clips available to the public, though I can tell you that in adition to the wealth of material I have from my wonderful interview with Dr. Williams, I also have filmed great interviews with Dr. Ray Winbush (“Should America Pay?: Slavery and the raging Debate on Slavery” and “Belinda’s Petition”) and Dr. James Loewen (“Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong”). There are still many more to come, the speed of which depends on successful fundraising efforts.

  25. Mike, amazing work that you are doing.

    I started my studdies on Black history in Canada many years ago when there were very few books available on the subject. I returned to this study last year and found many volumes most of which were only available in library archives. Sad, and even worse many books have gone missing from the libraries.

    I read the post above and agree that we must not forget the First Nations people. While my interest was my own people, I spent a lot of time last year reading about the relations between the two peoples, Africans and First Nations and yes, very little if any material is available on the Canadian experience. I was put in touch with a First Nations teacher, who is willingly looking into the topic for me. He will be presenting his findings in Feb. I can post the details if you so wish but for now, I would love to communicate with your further and even to invite you to this event.
    Happy New Year!

    • Greetings Millicent, thank you for your kind words! It is increasingly more difficult to access many of the most important sources on the subject! My own research efforts tend to get bogged down by the difficulty of physical access or the sheer cost of access to out-of-print books that are hoarded by vendors disinterested in the social value of the knowledge contained within them.

  26. Maurita Iacovissi says:

    Oooh, you’re such an inspiration. I love this blog!

  27. Incredibly valuable and necessary. Only the truth, repeated often and shouted from every corner, until it is considered obvious. will free us on both sides of the color line. Thank you for taking on this awesome and overwhelming project.

  28. Hey Mike! I’ve been following your very well-written and researched pieces on Race-Talk and have enjoyed them immensely. Having been a victim of the many “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” growing up in the Deep South, I can tell you – knowing one’s true history does matter in all the ways you’ve described. Based on the teaser, I know this project will be invaluable in its truth-telling, not only to Canadians – but to the rest of the world! Speaking of the project, where are you in the process? I noticed there are only 35 days or so left and you’re a tad short-of-goal on donations. Does that mean it won’t get made? Or just not any time soon? Will the crowdfund effort continue beyond the 35 days? I’d sure hate to see this endeavor fall by the wayside.

    • Greetings Deb, thank you for your comment. I am currently trying to raise funds that will allow me to finish filming the many interviews I still want/need in order to make the film. I already have some great material, but there is so much more to do and I have been funding the film on my own this entire time, which only works for so long. You are correct that I am not very close at all to reaching my crowdfunding goal on Indiegogo and do not have long to go… but don’t despair, I plan to continue making this documentary regardless of the outcome of the campaign. It just means it will take more time to get there…much more time.

  29. Better late than never!! We have waited long for this piece of history. Congratulations for a great project!

  30. Prof. Phil Okeke-Ihejirika says:

    I’m excited about this new find even with the quick ‘peep’ you provided. It succinctly reworks my inadequate attempt to resurrect a buried history, one that never ceases to shock every cohort of students that enters my classroom at the UofA.

    Do you make any provisions, for a desk, examination copy or special price for class use?

  31. I donated to your film, because I believe it is an important subject long ignored. However, I wonder if your title is getting in the way? It should probably read: A Past Denied: The Invisible History of Slavery in Canada (note there is no comma). Even “A Past Denied” might be too generic as a title?

    Best wishes. In Solidarity.

  32. quan ao thoi trang says:

    I was googling for something different however this got my attention :)

  33. The denial of this fact has contributed to the continued practice of racism and other forms of discrimination in our country. Let us eradicate this through education. Let us teach our children and grandchildren the truth about the history of country.

  34. Hi Mike,

    Excellent project, saw it mentioned and linked on another site dealing with legal initiatives for redress of these great wrongs. Best of luck with this!

  35. Hi Mike,

    I just came across this project today, and I’m very excited to hear about a documentary that directly confronts the issue of slavery in Canada. I’m currently taking a course at McGill called “Racism in Canada” and it has been shocking to learn that Canada has such a long history of racist practices that are rarely ever brought up in schools, and erased from the Canadian Narrative. Having grown up in Ontario, I was very surprised to learn about the black communities that settled in the early 1800s throughout rural Ontario, and as can be seen through this documentary – http://www.nfb.ca/film/speakers-for-the-dead/ – “Speakers for the Dead”, there has been an active process of erasing this part of our Canadian history.

    I look forward to your documentary, and I hope the process has been going well! Let me know if you are in need of a part-time research assistant, as I wouldn’t mind looking through primary documents to get more information on this subject (as a volunteer, of course)! Also, my professor may be someone you would like to get in contact with, as she has an interest in the history of slavery in Canada and has written a number of books on the subject from an Art History perspective. Send me an email if interested!

  36. Elizabeth Klein says:

    I have always heard about America having slaves,and have a neighbor who always downs us because of this.I have told her Canada also had slaves,and probably far more than us,but she denies the facts.She was a teacher and her husband was a college professor in the US.I wish she had a computer,or I had a printer to prove the historical facts to her.I definitely am going to let her know the facts which I have read,this is definitely the information highway.I guess Colin McNabb and Peter Russell are their historic heroes,as our George Washington,etc. is in our country.I agree that there should be black heritage taught in all schools throughout the world.God knows there have been many great accomplishments by black men and women.I only just learned about theTransatlantic slave trade.and the millions of slaves taken from their homes for over 200 years…And in some countries it started in the 1400s,like Portugal.There has to be justice somewhere,maybe in the hereafter!!

  37. Hello Mike –
    I am PhD student from Germany currently working on my thesis on fugitive slaves in nineteenth-century Canada. What an awesome project you started there – best of luck! Can’t wait for your film to get out there for me to watch it. You are absolutely right by saying that slavery in Canada has been – and is still, alas – a neglected topic. Despite the noticeable amount of scholarly work on the subject, we have to work towards getting this topic out in the open, that is, into school and university curricula. If we don’t manage to do this in the near future, Canadian blacks will continue to go unnoticed and un-appreciated, and a “multicultural” Canada will miss out on one of its most important historical chapters. I am sure your documentary will contribute to this important task. Cheers!

  38. Jeff (Calgary) says:

    New information, but not a real surprise given the treatment of our Aboriginals, Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, and the government in the 1920s intentional arranging steamship routes so south Asian people would not enter Canada directly from another part of the Empire and therefore would be inadmissible. Not to mention homesteading policies on the Prairies that were pro-British and anti-eastern European (even being white did not help if your were Ukrainian). And oh yeah, eugenics.

    Why would we really think that Canada would be less racist than the US or Britain? Our “peacemaker” and “mosaic” narratives are pretty much a part of our national identity

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