Black Loyalists honoured on commemorative coin issued by Canadian Mint

·3 min read

The contributions and struggles of Black Loyalists who founded many of Nova Scotia's most historic communities is being marked with a commemorative coin announced Monday by the Royal Canadian Mint.

The Black Loyalists were a group of people of African birth or descent who emigrated to Nova Scotia because of the American War of Independence against Britain.

In an effort to gain support, the British declared that any enslaved people would receive freedom and land if they took up arms for the British cause. The British ultimately lost and their supporters moved north, with more than 3,000 Black Loyalists arriving between 1783-1785.

Cynthia Dorrrington, the manager of the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre, spoke about her own family history at the virtual launch for the coin.

"My ancestors were formerly free Africans who were enslaved and brought to the Americas," Dorrington said. "Although the British lost the war, my ancestors won their freedom."

Submitted by Cynthia Dorrington
Submitted by Cynthia Dorrington

The $20 silver coin shows the coat of arms of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society, which has a number of symbols including a ship's wheel to represent bringing settlers to their new home.

The coin also contains the motto of the society, "The heart of your knowledge is in your roots."

The coin was introduced by Christa Bruce, the product manager at the Royal Canadian Mint who is herself a descendent of Black Loyalists.

"I'm proud to share their story of triumph and courage, and I respect and appreciate their role in fighting for the rights and liberties of Black Canadians," she said.

Royal Canadian Mint
Royal Canadian Mint

At the end of the war, American slave owners petitioned the British for the return of slaves, but the British agreed to give payment instead.

However, the freed slaves received no compensation. In many cases they did not receive the land and protection that was promised to them when they joined the British forces.

They set sail from American ports and landed at Port Roseway, N.S., later renamed Shelburne, and many settled at nearby Birchtown. Others settled in Port Mouton, N.S., Annapolis Royal, N.S., and Halifax.

They arrived in the fall and many didn't have time or a place to build proper shelter from the winter. Of the families who did receive land grants, the land was often of poor quality.

"Instead of becoming land-owning, free British subjects, the Black Loyalists were forced into indentured servitude, or sharecropping agreements with white landowners," Dorrington said.

The effects of restricting land title from Black families continue today.

Even Black Loyalists who practised a trade were not paid at the same rate as white workers, and they faced racism and poverty.

In 1784, the first race riot in North America took place in Shelburne when a group of white Loyalists attacked Black Loyalists and burned down 20 homes of free Black families.

In 1792, more than 1,000 Black Loyalists left Nova Scotia to sail to Sierra Leone to resettle. Some Nova Scotians continue to trace family connections to Sierra Leone in the present day.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Isaac Saney, a historian at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told CBC News this migration represented the Black Loyalists' "voting with their feet."

He described it as "one of the greatest, if not the greatest, back-to-Africa movement of the African diaspora."

Saney said colonial authorities used the Black Loyalists who stayed behind as a key source of skilled labour that they employed at low wages to build the infrastructure of the province.

He said while the new coin has a symbolic value in acknowledging the Black contribution to the "Canadian historical narrative," it needs to be accompanied by meaningful action.

"It's important that they be connected to real change in the community, real material and structural change that will end some of the egregious inequalities, inequities and injustices the community continues to face," he said.

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.