Documentaries

Canada was not the safe haven from slavery we were taught about

Haven, But No Heaven, the first episode of new CBC docuseries Black Life: Untold Stories, is an unflinching examination of slavery in Canada that dispels the myth of Canada as a safe haven for Black people.

The first episode of Black Life: Untold Stories is an unflinching examination of slavery in Canada

Slavery was 'the norm' in Canada, says former governor general Michaëlle Jean

6 months ago
Duration 0:32
Michaëlle Jean shares her thoughts on why slavery in Canada is often overlooked in new CBC documentary series Black Life: Untold Stories.

Black Life: Untold Stories is an epic eight-part documentary series that reframes the rich and complex histories of Black people in Canada over 400 years. Watch now on CBC Gem.

A descendant of slaves herself, former governor general Michaëlle Jean is not afraid to broach the subject of slavery in Canada.  

"Of course, Nouvelle France, [the] French Empire and the British Empire [were] colonial. And they were slavers," Jean says in "Haven, But No Heaven," the first episode of Black Life: Untold Stories

Slavery was the norm in Canada for centuries. The first recorded enslaved person in Canada was a little boy who was given the name Olivier Le Jeune, whose sale was recorded in 1628.

"Haven, But No Heaven" is an unflinching examination of slavery in Canada that dispels the myth of Canada as a safe haven for Black people. 

Stories include the brutal trial and execution of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a young enslaved woman rumoured to have started a massive fire in Montreal in 1734, and Colonel Matthew Elliott, a loyalist who populated his immense farm in what's now Amherstburg, Ont., with 60 enslaved people of African descent.

But amid the tragedies, there are also instances of hope and resilience, like the remarkable account of the Blackburns, a couple who escaped enslavement and persecution in the United States and unwittingly put Upper Canada's new laws regarding slavery to their first-ever legal test. The principle established in their landmark case remains foundational to Canadian extradition law to this day.

Or the story of Alvin McCurdy, who collected hundreds of photos to show Black Canadians in the light in which they deserved to be shown.

"I am of Haitian origin. My ancestors were slaves," Jean says. "Three words resonated for them, and [they] came from the Enlightenment: liberty, equality, fraternity. These words were not meant for us Negroes, but they resonated in our flesh."

Interviewees include: 

  • Michaëlle Jean
  • Afua Cooper
  • Natasha Henry-Dixon
  • Irene Moore Davis
  • Charmaine A. Nelson
  • Karolyn Smardz Frost
  • Dorothy W. William
A woman sits on a chair in a studio with lights.
Scarborough, Ont., filmmaker Alicia K. Harris is the director of "Haven, But No Heaven," the first episode of CBC's docuseries Black Life: Untold Stories. (Duane Cole Photography)

Directed by Alicia K. Harris

"Haven, But No Heaven" is directed by Scarborough, Ont., filmmaker Alicia K. Harris, best known for her short film Pick, which won Best Live Action Short at the 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. She was producing director of the upcoming show Beyond Black Beauty for Amazon and directed the TIFF-selected web series Lido TV, hosted by Lido Pimienta, which earned her a Best Direction in a Web Program or Series nomination at the 2023 Canadian Screen Awards. Her latest short film, only light will touch us, was commissioned by Netflix and Reel Canada for National Canadian Film Day. Well versed in many mediums, Harris directed the music video for the song Pressure by Grammy-winning artist Koffee and a musical film for singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez. She is known for her high-concept visual style and is dedicated to celebrating the Black experience in her work, with a focus on authenticity, beauty and spirituality.

"Haven, But No Heaven" airs Oct. 18 on CBC Gem and Oct. 25 at 9 p.m. (9:30 p.m. NT) on CBC.

Black Life: Untold Stories episodes:

  • Haven, But No Heaven (Slavery)
  • Revolution Remix (Civil Rights)
  • Northern Beats (Music)
  • Migrations (Immigration)
  • Creation Insists (Arts & Literature) 
  • More Than a Game (Sports)
  • Justice Denied (Activism) 
  • Claiming Space (Settlements)

"Haven, But No Heaven" contains disturbing depictions of the inhumanity faced by enslaved people from African countries during the transatlantic slave trade, which may be traumatizing to some viewers. 


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.
(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thandiwe Konguavi is an award-winning journalist who was born in Zimbabwe and has received honours from the Canadian Church Press, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association Canada. She is a web writer and editor of First Person columns at CBC Edmonton. She is also the digital producer of CBC's docuseries, Black Life: Untold Stories, debuting on CBC Gem and CBC-TV in October. Reach her at thandiwe.konguavi@cbc.ca.

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