First Nations routinely captured slaves from neighbouring tribes. The conditions under which such slaves lived were much more humane than the conditions endured by African peoples forcibly brought as chattel by Europeans to the Americas. Slave-owning tribes of the fishing societies, such as the Yurok, lived along the coast from what is now Alaska to California. Fierce warrior indigenous slave-traders of the Pacific Northwest Coast raided as far as California. Slavery was hereditary, the slaves being prisoners of war and their descendants. Among Pacific Northwest tribes about a quarter of the population were slaves.
The first documented cases of slavery in Canada are from 1501. Approximately 50 First Nations peoples (Beothuks) were forcibly kidnapped, from the shores of Labrador, and taken to Lisbon the capital of Portugal, by Alberto Cantino. It was reported that their upper bodies were built for hard labour and the Portuguese found a new source of slaves. Most of the group died en-route and those who survived and landed in Lisbon died soon afterwards from various European diseases. Another second ship was sent captained by Gaspar Corte-Real and was believed to be carrying another 50 or more ‘slaves’, but was lost at sea on the return trip. The citizens of New France received slaves as gifts from their allies among First Nations peoples. Slaves were prisoners taken in raids against the villages of the Fox nation, a tribe that was an ancient rival of the Miami people and their Algonquian allies. Native (or “pani”, a corruption of Pawnee) slaves were much easier to obtain and thus more numerous than African slaves in New France, but were less valued.
The average native slave died at 18, and the average African slave died at 25 (the average European could expect to live until the age of 35). 1790, the abolition movement was gaining credence in Canada and the ill intent of slavery was evidenced by an incident involving a slave woman being violently abused by her slave owner on her way to being sold in the United States. The Act Against Slavery of 1793 legislated the gradual abolition of slavery: no slaves could be imported; slaves already in the province would remain enslaved until death, no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada, and children born to female slaves would be slaves but must be freed at age 25. The Act remained in force until 1833 when the British Parliament’s Slavery Abolition Act finally abolished slavery in all parts of the British Empire. Historian Marcel Trudel has documented 4,092 recorded slaves throughout Canadian history, of which 2,692 were Aboriginal people, owned by the French, and 1,400 blacks owned by the British, together owned by approximately 1,400 masters. Trudel also noted 31 marriages took place between French colonists and Aboriginal slaves.