The Underground Railroad is the term used to describe the network of routes, safe houses and sympathizers that enabled African-American slaves to escape from the Southern United States to freedom. While the term is American in origin – first appearing in an abolitionist newspaper in 1839 – the Underground Railroad’s terminus was actually British North America (soon to become Canada), where slavery had been outlawed in 1834. From 1840 to 1860, some twenty to forty thousand slaves (estimates vary) reached freedom in Canada. Black communities in Southern Ontario, Nova Scotia, Quebec and British Columbia trace their origins to slaves who found freedom in Canada aboard the underground railroad. While the numbers who successfully fled north all the way to Canada may have been smaller than Canadians like to think, Canada’s role in helping slaves find freedom has become a founding national myth speaking to our sense of openness and charity.
Underground Railroad has been used over the years to describe a wide variety of escape routes used by oppressed peoples – such as Jews from Nazi-occupied lands during the Second World War. During the Vietnam War, the route or means some 50,000 American “draft dodgers” used to get to Canada was called an Underground Railroad. More recently in 2017, the term has remerged in reference to both ad-hoc and officially sponsored migration to Canada. Following the election of President Donald Trump, many commentators used the term Underground Railroad once again when speaking about of Somali and Haitian refugees who, fearing detention or deportation by US officials, crossed the border (some even on foot) in remote areas of Quebec and Manitoba. In September 2017, it was revealed that the Canadian government had established (what observers deemed) an Underground Railroad to covertly rescue gay men from persecution in Chechnya. National myth or not, there was and there is an underground railroad whose terminus is Canada.
Image source: University of Windsor