Indentured Servants in Canada

by June Payne Flath

Indentured servitude was a form of slavery of the poor. Masters often refused to free the servant when the servitude had ended.
Indentured servitude was a form of slavery of the poor. Masters often refused to free the servant when the servitude had ended.

It was an opportunity. It was slavery. Some believe indentured servitude provided passage to the New World. It’s been referred to as white slavery as well as simply a business opportunity. Whether it was a form of welfare or a chance to pay off debt depends on the situation and whom you ask.

In the beginning, settlement of British North America was not the goal. Early traders had a lucrative business going with the natives and there was concern that settlers might interfere. In time though Britain came to realize the best way to protect this piece of prime real estate was to populate it. That proved easier said than done. It was costly to cross the Atlantic, and those who could afford passage were not really the class of people needed.

Strong men were needed willing to swing an axe all day, consider oxen their best friends and survive winters on little food. Women who would tolerate such men, not be opposed to swinging an axe and befriending oxen, would also be welcome.

indentured_servantFarmers, blacksmiths, and innkeepers all needed apprentices, people that would learn their skills and carry them on. At the same time England, Ireland and Scotland had swarms of unemployed due to the Industrial Revolution. Their streets, poor houses, orphanages and prisons were overflowing with homeless people. What to do with them was an ongoing debate. Shipping them to the colonies was a solution for both sides of the ocean.

Indentured labour was a form of contract employment usually with a three- to seven-year time frame. A person became an indentured servant by agreeing to work off a debt during a specified term. “Debt slaves” is another phrase to describe the arrangement, especially in the case of prisoners and youth who had no choice and no other opportunity to repay the debt.

Supporting a family was not only difficult in the United Kingdom, it remained a challenge in the New World. Since Ontario did not have “Poor Laws” (legal obligation for municipalities to care for the local poor) couples with a large number of offspring might make arrangements for a child to be indentured.

A farmer unable to provide farms for all his children might arrange to have one or more of them indentured to a large local land owner. The agreement might include land for a young man who worked to the completion of his term, or domestic service for a daughter.

One estimate claims half of the white settlers of North America were indentured servants. Destitute, they agreed to work for the purchaser of the indenture upon arrival in this foreign land. Jim Struthers, chairman of the Canadian Studies Department at Trent University, says that employers in Upper Canada used indentured servitude as a means of maintaining a labour force. It was a legal contract that held people to a particular employment, to a place, at least long enough to pay back the initial cost of the passage. Some contracts were similar to apprenticeships while the terms of others were harsh. Some felt indentured servants were treated worse than slaves. They only needed to keep the worker alive for the term of the contract; if they died shortly after, it was not their loss. Contracts varied from situation to situation with no standard form. Permanent employment, a learned skill, the promise of land, tools, any and all of these might be promised for those who stayed for the duration of their contract.

While women were in great demand in Upper Canada, the only category open to a single woman who wished to travel to Canada was domestic servant. Jane Ralston arrived in Upper Canada in the 1850s at the age of sixteen. As the daughter of parents too poor to care for her in a village that offered no employment opportunities, she had been indentured to a master in St. Thomas. Unhappy with her treatment in his household, she ran away. Fugitive notices for runaway “white slaves” were not uncommon; however, Europeans did not stand out in a crowd, as did African slaves, and it was easy for them to simply disappear. Jane made her way to Niagara Falls and married Samuel Hall, a black fugitive slave from the American south. Together they operated a hotel in the Niagara Falls district and provided carriage transportation for tourists.

“It was a way to provide for children,” says Larry Hall, descendant of Samuel and Jane. He says while they know little of how arrangements were made, they do know that both Jane’s family and her master’s family in St. Thomas had originated from the same village in Scotland.

“It was a widely used device in Great Britain. They had a number of ways for getting rid of surplus.”

Eventually Upper Canada’s population grew and businesses expanded, creating job opportunities, reducing the need for indenture to ensure a work force. People came as indentured servants, they stayed and their stories are woven into the fabric of our history, our legends, our lives.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 50, Summer 2005. Copyright June Payne Flath.

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