Justice system operated in discriminatory fashion; says history professor
Many Canadians believe black slaves who travelled the Underground Railroad escaped racism in the Southern U.S. and lived a life free of oppression in Canada. But the reality is former slaves and African Canadians faced racism from Ontario’s justice system, according to Queen’s University history professor Barrington Walker.
In his new book Race on Trial: Black Defendants in Ontario’s Criminal Courts 1858-1958, Dr. Walker says even though slavery was abolished in 1833, the justice system in Ontario generally operated in a discriminatory fashion.
“Black Canadians enjoyed legal freedoms that many black Americans did not have. But laws in Ontario were often used to maintain inequalities,” says Dr. Walker who teaches black Canadian history. “I wanted to understand the particularities of racism in a Canadian context and get away from making the easy comparisons to the U.S. – which inevitably puts Canada in a more favourable light.”
Dr. Walker examined old court transcripts, judges’ bench books, newspapers and jail records. Despite the province’s formal legal equality, the charges and convictions among the black population show patterns of social, legal and attitudinal inequality.
One case that stuck out for Dr. Walker was the trial of George Freeman. In 1894, police went to George Freeman’s home near London to arrest him after a complaint was filed that he had fathered a child with an underage white woman. However, the woman was of legal age and it is believed the relationship was consensual. During the arrest, a melee broke out and a police officer was killed. Freeman and several family members were eventually convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to life in prison.
“George Freeman should never have been arrested in the first place. That struck me as one of the more unfair trials I discovered during my research,” says Dr. Walker.
Race on Trial is printed by University of Toronto Press.