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Scrawled at the bottom of a pro-slavery petition from 200 years ago are four names Colby Gaudet immediately recognized.
The signatures weren't just familiar to the PhD student, who grew up in Annapolis County, N.S., some were the names of Gaudet's Acadian ancestors.
"It was a visceral reaction," Gaudet told CBC's Information Morning on reading the petition for the first time. "I kind of had to put the book down and just kind of have this moment of historical reckoning when you realize these events from the past ... have impact or are connected to us."
Gaudet has discovered through their PhD research at Concordia University in Montreal that their Acadian ancestors not only owned slaves, but actively fought for the right to keep them even as abolition loomed.
The Acadians, French descendents who settled in what would become Nova Scotia during the 17th and 18th centuries, were forcibly expelled during the Grand Dérangement that displaced more than 11,000 people.
While the expulsion narrative is well known in Nova Scotia, the Acadian involvement in slavery is not, and Gaudet hopes this personal discovery sheds light on Canadians' collective understanding of slavery.
"In my research on Acadian history, I've never really at all encountered reference to the potential of Acadian slave owners," Gaudet said. "I do believe it has the potential to sort of critically reconfigure our understanding of the Acadian society of St. Marys Bay."
Who was Amable Doucet?
The petition Gaudet stumbled upon was reprinted in a book by American historian, Harvey Amani Whitfield, and is one of two clues that helped them piece together their family's past.
The other clue is the will of Gaudet's fifth-great-grandfather, Amable Doucet, which is dated June 1806. In it, Doucet bequeaths a Black slave named Jerome to his wife, along with the rest of his property.
During the deportation of the Acadians, Doucet ended up in Newbury, Mass., and Gaudet said it's possible he picked up slave-owning customs from his time in the U.S.
Doucet is someone Acadians living along St Marys Bay in the early 1800s would have known. He was the first Acadian justice of the peace during the resettlement period, Gaudet said.
"I'm not by any means saying that all Acadians at this time would have been slave owners," Gaudet said. "In fact, I'm specifically focusing in on these few names as representing sort of an elite strata of Acadian society at that time."
LISTEN | Colby Gaudet on finding out Acadian ancestors owned slaves:
Charmaine Nelson, an art history professor at McGill University, said slave ownership was rampant in Nova Scotia among those of English and French ancestry.
"We have this misperception that slavery was only in the hands of the richest, most elite whites and that's not the case," Nelson said. "Because of that, we don't understand how pervasive slavery was in Canada."
She's studied the ads that slave owners printed in newspapers to sell slaves or track down those who ran away. Slave owners often signed their names to the ads, along with occupations that spanned social classes: butcher, tailor, military man and governor.
Nelson applauds Gaudet's bravery in being willing to confront a dark family secret, and she's encouraging other Canadians to do the same.
Slavery is not a Black history, she said, but one that everyone, regardless of race, must carry and learn from.
"There's a very good chance that some of your ancestors, if you go back in that family tree, had something to do with slavery, directly or indirectly," she said. "The question is do you want to know about it, and what do you do about it once you know?"
Why the date of the petition matters
The petition, signed by 27 residents of Digby County, is dated December 1807 and urges the British government to strengthen the residents' right to own slaves. Earlier that year, it became illegal to travel to Africa and enslave free people, although slavery in the British colonies wouldn't be officially abolished until Aug. 1, 1834.
"This 1807 is a really important moment because it's a heightened moment of abolition in the transatlantic world," said Nelson, who is soon moving to Nova Scotia to open the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD University.
"It's a moment when the French and the British, they're all thinking, 'Maybe we should stop altogether,' and then in Nova Scotia, these people are like, 'No, you don't.'"
What's more horrific, said Nelson, is that when transatlantic slavery was outlawed, slave owners began forcing slaves to procreate, sometimes for the length of their fertile years.
How many Acadians owned slaves is unclear, said Afua Cooper, a professor at Dalhousie University who led a panel that explored that institutions' connections to slavery.
But she said that every white group that arrived in Nova Scotia before slavery was abolished practised slavery.
"It was pervasive. It marked the life of Black people," she said.
Cooper said it's time Canadians reckon with this past.
People like to tell only part of the story — that Acadians were persecuted by the English and that Black slaves fled the U.S. for safety in Canada, she said. But that's not the whole truth.
Nelson and Cooper both point to the fact that many slaves actually fled in the opposite direction, leaving Upper Canada for Michigan and New York state where slavery was abolished.
While slavery in Canada is often connected to the British Loyalists, who began to arrive here in the 1780s, this country's history with enslavement has much deeper roots, Nelson said.
"The image that we have of Canada is so pervasive," Cooper said, "You bring proof upon proof to people that this wasn't the case for so many people … they still find it hard to believe because it goes against the mythology that they've been brought up with."
A plea to preserve documents
Gaudet expects this research could stir up uncomfortable conversations among their own family and the larger Acadian community "because of the way Acadian history has largely been portrayed in the larger narrative of Canadian history."
Nelson, meanwhile, is encouraging people to follow Gaudet's lead and scour their attics and basements to uncover family artifacts they may not know about or have long kept secret.
These are profoundly important documents ... - Charmaine Nelson, McGill University
Maybe they will discover something like the petition of 1807.
"These are profoundly important documents that help us to understand not just your individual families, but the foundations of our provinces and our nation better," Nelson said.
"They should not be destroyed. They need to be put in the hands of people who understand how to interpret them and how to take care of them."
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