by Caitlin Ward
When University of Saskatchewan students Leah Horlick and Cassandra Matthies began studying the slave trade to prepare for a traveling exhibit at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre, they had no idea just how close to home slavery really is.
“People look at you funny when you say there are slaves down on 20th Street,” Matthies says. “But that’s what’s going on—child — child prostitution is forced labour, and that’s essentially slavery.”
Young Canada Works grants allowed Horlick and Matthies to work as museum interpreters at the U of S centre this past summer. They worked on “Passage to Freedom: Secrets of the Underground Railroad,” a traveling exhibit from Welland Historical Museum which explores the path of escaped slaves from the deep south to Canada during the 19th century.
By coincidence, the exhibit arrived in the bicentenary year of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, and will leave the centre on February 24th at the end of Black History Month.
The students found even after 200 years, slavery is alive and well in the world.
“Modern slavery…is characterized by forms of forced labour, like debt bondage, sex trafficking, and forced domestic servitude or military service,” Horlick, a linguistics major, says. “It’s a worldwide industry. [The exhibit] takes issues that often seem far away historically or globally, and brings them close to home.”
Collaborating with U of S sociology professor and human rights activist Patience Elabor-Idemudia, the two undergraduates created additional panels about modern-day slavery for the exhibit. Slavery may no longer be typified by Africans cutting tobacco in Virginia, but Horlick and Matthies found there are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today.
“A lot of people come back and say, ‘I never thought of it that way,’” Matthies says. “It’s a new idea, and very rarely publicly exhibited. We didn’t want to celebrate the 200th anniversary without acknowledging there’s so much more to do.”
Canada was an inhospitable place to former slaves in the 19th and early 20th century. In 1911, Sir Wilfred Laurier’s cabinet enacted an order-in-council which forbade black immigration to Canada because they were “deemed unsuitable” for the climate and requirements of Canada. The centre’s exhibit charts the progress of black immigrants in Canada in the face of such tenacious racism, which also included school segregation.
The students found a local connection through the Shiloh heritage site, located northwest of North Battleford. Shiloh was the first of two black settlements in Saskatchewan and has the only black cemetery in the province.
It is almost exclusively a heritage site now; the last citizen of Shiloh was buried in 1987. In the 1930s, however, there were as many as 50 families — descendants of former slaves — living and working in the town.
The students spoke with Leander Lane, a direct descendent of one of the founding families in the Shiloh community. Lane’s grandfather, Julius Caesar Lane, was the first person to be buried in the cemetery (1913).
Checking some of their research with U of S American history professor Geoff Cunfer, Matthies and Horlick researched the exhibit, wrote the souvenir handbooks, and designed the centre’s contributions to the exhibit. Horlick notes she gained invaluable research skills while seeking out local resources and connections.
Because many school tours visit the centre, the undergraduates ensured the exhibit was accessible to all age groups. They created a variety of educational games so that any grade level could take something away from the exhibit.
For Matthies in particular, working at the centre had an important impact on her career plans. Currently pursuing an honours degree in English with a minor in history, she had intended to go into library sciences and eventually work in a university library, but now is more interested in public library education.
“So much of what’s in this exhibit has been explored academically, but hasn’t really trickled down to the larger community,” she says. “I think it’s important everyone know about these things — what’s happening in the world, and what has happened in the past, affects us all.”
Caitlin Ward is a graduate student fellow working in the U of S Research Communications office.