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Celebrating Emancipation Month (August 2022) & Black Settlers in East Gwillimbury

Many people know that February is designated as Black history month in Canada. Recently, though, a new month has been established to highlight the importance of Black history within the context of Canadian history. Last year, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed Bill 75 on December 8th, 2021, proclaiming that the month of August would be known as Emancipation Month. In this blog post, we are going to talk about the background behind this declaration, and to highlight some of the Black settlers who lived in East Gwillimbury in the 19th century.

First, we need some context around the term “Emancipation Month”. Attempts to outlaw slavery in British North America were slow and hampered by special interest groups, primarily wealthy owners who did not want to give up their perceived right to own enslaved persons. In 1793, Governor John Graves Simcoe enabled the passage of The Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada. While it did not free any enslaved persons already living in Upper Canada, it did prohibit the importation of enslaved people into the province. It was not until the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the British government in 1833 and came into effect on August 1st, 1834. The passage of this act freed over 800,000 Black people in British-controlled colonies, including a small number those people who were living in Canada. Among Black communities, August 1st is known as “Emancipation Day”.

Due to the passage of this act, Canada was seen as a haven for Black people; since slavery was still a large part of social life in the United States, hundreds of thousands of Black people escaped north to Canada to find a better life for themselves.

How does this relate to East Gwillimbury? It may come as a surprise to you, but there was a Black settlement in this area due to the business practices of William Cane. Mr. Cane was a merchant in Newmarket, and owned Cane’s Woodenware in Newmarket, as well as a sawmill on Concession 5 (Kennedy Road) in East Gwillimbury. He offered gainful employment for many of the people who were escaping north to Canada through the Underground Railroad, who would cut and sell the timber which was used in Cane’s woodenware manufacturing business. In his book “Stories of Newmarket”, Robert Terrence Carter notes that “a Black settlement developed near the mill, and by 1882 about fifty men lived there with their families.”[1] Unfortunately, much of the employment for cutting timber waned as the forest was reduced, and then the mill was moved into Newmarket, forcing people in this small Black community to seek employment elsewhere.

One of the founding members of this community about whom we know the most is Henry Hisson, his wife Sarah Jane Hisson, and his children. He and his family came up to Canada prior to the American Civil War, and he was employed at William Cane’s sawmill. Eventually, after the sawmill moved to Newmarket, he purchased twelve acres of land from William Cane. To supplement his income, he turned to making charcoal on his land, hauling his product by wagon to sell in Toronto. It seems that he was the most affluent Black person in the area, owning a wagon, horse, and a barn.

In addition, he was a respected member of the community; in the Newmarket Era newspaper, Sir William Mulock recounts the story of a campaign stop at Henry Hisson’s house during the election of 1882 to become the Member of Provincial Parliament for North York.[2] One of his sons, Edward John Hisson (1881 – 1949) moved out to Guelph and became a stove-maker. Later, two of his brothers Samuel and Israel, later joined him there. Presumably other members of the family moved to Newmarket or elsewhere in search of better economic opportunities.

Figure 1: Portrait of an unidentified family. From the Archives of Ontario, F-2076, Alvin D. McCurdy Fonds. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Do you know any other stories of Black people who lived in East Gwillimbury? Let us know in the comments section below!

[1] Carter, Robert Terrence, (2011). Stories of Newmarket: An Old Ontario Town. Toronto: Dundurn Press. 151.


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