Niagara-on-the-Lake: Parliament Oak School
It was a Canadian slave owner trying to sell a woman across the Niagara River in the United States who inspired Upper Canada’s first Governor General, John Graves Simcoe, to write his 1793 Act to Limit Slavery. Simcoe hoped to eliminate slavery in the new colony, but the fact that so many of his colleagues owned slaves forced him to compromise: keeping the existing slaves in chains while banning the creation of more. It was still the first act of its kind in a British colony. You can find a dignified memorial limestone bas-relief on the wall of Parliament Oak School at 325 King Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake, believed to be the site of the colony’s first parliament, where the act was passed.
Fort Erie: The Crossing
The Crossing at Fort Erie marks the spot where thousands of fugitives first set foot in Canada. Former Maryland slave Josiah Henson, who escaped in 1830 and became a pioneer community builder in Upper Canada, described how “the riotous exultation” of his feelings upon first landing here caused him to fall to the ground and “to execute sundry antics which excited the astonishment of those who were looking on.” They thought he was suffering from a seizure. But no, Henson explained, it was his first intoxicating experience of freedom that caused his “fit” of happiness. You can find a plaque marking the Crossing in the aptly named Freedom Park at the foot of Bertie Street on the Fort Erie waterfront.
Fort Erie: Bertie Hall
Thirty kilometres south on the Niagara Parkway is the handsome Bertie Hall, an imposing Greek revival mansion that was used as a warehouse for trade goods in the early 19th century — and as a safe house where newly escaped slaves could hide while U.S. bounty hunters searched for them. A plaque on the grounds details the history of the building and its role in the Underground Railroad. A descent into the basement shows where the runaways hid.
Niagara Falls: Harriet Tubman’s Historic Crossing into Canada
In June 2017, the Niagara Parks Commission unveiled an interpretive plaque commemorating Harriet Tubman’s first crossing into Canada in 1856. She crossed on a suspension bridge near the current Whirlpool Bridge Plaza along the Niagara Parkway north of the falls. Students from nearby schools petitioned for the plaque which details Tubman’s life from her time as a slave in Maryland to her escape to freedom in Canada.
St. Catharines: The Salem Chapel
On the fringe of downtown St. Catharines, you will find one of the most significant monuments of black history in Canada, the Salem Chapel of the British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church, built by former slaves and still a thriving hub for the surviving community of their descendants. This is where legendary Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman worshipped during the 1850s and planned the daring raids that brought so many more people north to freedom. “I brought them all clear off to Canada,” she famously declared, and the first stop was always this neighbourhood in St. Catharines. The existing 1853 chapel, the third one the congregation built on this site, is the oldest surviving Black church in Ontario.
“I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer, I brought them all clear off to Canada”
-HARRIET TUBMAN, 1868