Will Ferguson’s Canada


A search for Canada finds the Underground Railroad

August 25 2003
Will Ferguson’s Canada


A search for Canada finds the Underground Railroad

August 25 2003


Will Ferguson’s Canada

A search for Canada finds the Underground Railroad

LIKE ANY road trip worthy of the name, it was all about freedom. Freedom and escape.

I had been hired to write a cultural study, a sort of “how to” guidebook on being a Canadian, and had immediately brought my brother Ian on board as co-author. Seemed simple enough. All Ian and I had to do was come up with a definitive look at Canadian society. Piece of cake, that. Why, the book would practically write itself!

But as deadline after deadline whooshed by, we realized with a growing sense of unease that perhaps unlocking the secrets of the Canadian soul would be a little more work than we had anticipated. The phone calls and e-mails from our publisher began to pile up, each one more hand-wringingly nervous than the last. “The printing presses are standing by, ha ha, but we still haven’t received anything from you. You weren’t planning to write the entire book in a weekend were you, ha ha? Were you??”

So I flew to Toronto in order to brainstorm with Ian directly, and after an intensive all-night session we managed to write an entire chapter: “How the Canadian Government Works.” Unfortunately, the chapter consisted of only two words: “It doesn’t.”

“Do you know what we need?” said Ian, apropos of nothing. “We need a road trip. That will get the creative energy flowing.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. We needed to hit the highways and byways of this great land, to see Canada first-hand, to understand what it really means to be a Canadian. So we left Toronto and headed west, through the tobacco fields of southern Ontario. We were searching for Canada.

It was meant to be an afternoon jaunt: out at 4 p.m., locate Canada by 5:45, back by 7. But the road has its own momentum. We just kept going and going, onward, ever onward with the sort of giddy joy that you can only get from driving through back roads in an expense-account rent-a-car. When we got bored of that, we joined the Trans-Canada: an expression of freedom if ever there was one. We drove into the dusk and into the darkness, until the highway became little more than a Morse code of dashes flickering past us in the headlights’ glare. We drove until we reached the ends of the earth (i.e. Chatham, Ont.), where—with our usual unerring instincts—we chose the city’s one truly fleabag motel.

The next morning, having failed to locate

Canada (we looked under the beds and behind the seats; nada), we were now faced with the long ride back to Toronto. Over breakfast at a roadside café—chosen with our usual unerring instincts—I unfolded the accordion origami of our road map and began plotting the route home. It was only then that I realized how near we were to the town of Dresden.

“Hey,” I said. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is really close. It’s in Dresden. Do you want to go?”

“Sure,” said Ian. “Why not?” Anything was better than trying to figure out what makes Canada tick.

So who was Uncle Tom? A fictional character, to be sure, but one based on a real person: Rev. Josiah Henson, who was born into slavery on a farm in Maryland in 1789. Henson’s earliest memories, at the age of three or four, were of seeing his father bleeding from the head and back. His father’s right ear had been cut off and his back had been lashed 100 times until it was a bloody pulp, punishment for having struck a white man. Henson’s father was then sold to a plantation in Alabama, and Henson never saw him again.

As a teenager, Josiah Henson dragged

his drunken owner from a brawl and, in doing so, knocked down a white overseer. Seething in anger, the overseer and three other men ambushed Henson and beat him with a fence post. Henson’s arm was broken and both shoulder blades were shattered. “I could feel and hear the pieces of my shoulder blades grate against each other with every breath,” Henson recalled in his memoirs. “No physician or surgeon was ever called to dress my wounds.”

The attack left Henson in chronic pain and unable to lift his arms to his head for the rest of his life. By then, he had already discovered his true calling: the gospel. Henson went on to become an ordained minister, a slave who preached sermons about the children of Israel and their flight from captivity. Henson was a powerful orator and through his work he was able to save up enough money to buy his freedom—a rare feat. But just when his deliverance seemed at hand, he was betrayed by his master, who essentially pocketed the money and then attempted to sell Henson. In 1830, after 41 years as a slave, Josiah Henson decided to escape. To Canada.

In Upper Canada, the slave trade had been abolished in 1793 and thousands of American slaves—estimates range as high as 50,000—followed “the North Star to freedom.” A secretive network of safe houses, dubbed the Underground Railroad, helped spirit runaways to Canada. The safe houses were known as “stations,” the fugitive slaves were “passengers” and the people who guided them were “conductors.”

The hymns that the slaves sang were laced with hidden meanings. “Israel” referred to the slaves, yearning for freedom. “Egypt” referred to the American slave states and “pharaohs” to the slave owners. “Canaan” was Canada, and the underground network itself was a “sweet chariot.” To “swing low” was to come down south. And “carry me home” meant to be taken to freedom.

On a moonless night in September, Josiah Henson, his wife and their four young children joined this clandestine migration; they caught the chariot and slipped away. A long, gruelling hike took them to Ohio, where a sympathetic Scottish river boat captain smuggled Henson and his family down river to Buffalo, N.Y., and then paid for their passage on a ferry boat to Canada. When they reached Canadian soil, Josiah threw himself on the ground and rolled in the

dirt, laughing so loudly that a passerby

thought he was having a seizure. Once the initial elation passed, reality set in. “I was a stranger in a strange land,” Henson recalled. “I knew nothing about the country or the people.”

Former slaves had introduced widespread tobacco cultivation to southern Ontario. Indeed, they had a virtual monopoly on tobacco, using skills they had acquired in the American South. Henson, preaching from his pulpit, recognized the weakness in relying on a single cash crop and he urged the farmers to diversify. He called upon the black community to invest their earnings

WE NEEDED to hit the highways and byways, to see Canada first-hand, to understand what it really means to be a Canadian

in land of their own. “Where,” in Henson’s words, “every tree which we felled, and every bushel of corn we raised, would be for ourselves; in other words, where we could secure all the profits of our own labour.”

And in 1841, the Dawn settlement was founded. By arranging the purchase of 200 acres of rich farm land along the Sydenham River near what is now Dresden, and securing a further 100 acres soon after, Henson helped establish a fully integrated community of freed blacks, with a school, a church, a sawmill, a blacksmith shop and a gristmill.

Henson’s autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, was published a few years later and provided the basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist tale, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Stowe’s novel sparked an international outcry by its depiction of the cruelty of the slave trade and Abraham Lincoln would credit it with helping spark the U.S. Civil War. (Yes, sometimes books do matter.)

Years passed. The Civil War ended, and slavery was abolished. Josiah Henson travelled back to Maryland to visit the plantation where he had been a slave. It was a poignant moment. When Henson arrived, he found the fields overgrown and the buildings crumbling into ruin. His former master had long since died, and the widow was now tending to the fading estate on her own. When Henson came to the front door, she looked at him in wonderment.

“Si,” she said, using his old nickname. “You are dressed like a gentleman.”

“Ma’am,” he replied. “I always was.”

Josiah Henson may have been the inspiration for Uncle Tom, but that name has since taken on negative minstrel-show connotations, which is unfortunate, because it undermines the heroic scale of Henson’s life and his achievements. His house, now known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” is not a cabin at all, but a two-storey home. It creaks with history.

The Henson house, along with a sawmill, a church and another home from that era, are located on land that was once part of the original Dawn settlement. The church, with weathered siding boards and square handmade nails, contains the very pulpit that Henson preached from, where he would have conjured up tales of slavery and freedom, of a promised land and a journey through the wilderness. The exterior planks of the church’s board-and-batten construction are knotted and dry, the colour of driftwood. When you push against the wood, it is soft under touch, as pliant and yielding as memory itself.

The Dawn settlement—and others like it— had an immense and far-reaching impact on the black community in Canada. But its time passed as well, and the community eventually disbanded. The assets were sold and the funds donated to a school in Chatham, and though hard years of segregation would follow in Dresden and elsewhere, the black community has now became integrated into the mainstream. I talked about this with Brenda Lambkin, a soft-spoken woman who believes her family first came to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

She estimates the black community in

Dresden today at only about 150 people in a town of some 2,700. “There is a lot of intermarriage between blacks and whites. The kids don’t much look at colour any more. This is a close-knit community. Everyone knows each other.” The real problem, like small towns everywhere, is economic. “I have four kids, two boys, two girls. They’ve all moved to the city.” Would she ever consider making the trek to the big city as well? “Oh no,” she says with a laugh. “I’m a farm girl. I live just down the road from here, about five miles down on 12th concession.”

Brenda Lambkin looks across the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, to the church and the Henson house and the cornfields beyond. The corn comes right to the edge of the yard, and it feels as though we are standing at the bottom of a small lake surrounded by green fields. “I like it here,” she says. “Peaceful.”

On the other side of the church, I find Ian standing beside Henson’s grave, an unlit cigarette in his hand. He is reading the inscription and barely notices when I sidle up beside him. “Well,” I say, half-expecting a quip or a wry comment on how far we’ve driven and how far we still have to go to get home. “What do you think? ” A warm wind is moving through the corn, rustling leaves and swaying the stalks. “I don’t know what I expected,” Ian says. “But I didn’t expect this. I didn’t expect it to be so moving.”

We have inherited an easy life in Canada. It is a lazy sort of freedom that we enjoy today, and it’s one we take for granted. And rightly so. It is our birthright. But it is also worth remembering, in the words of modem Bulgarian-born Canadian philanthropist Ignat Kaneff, that “people crawl across minefields to get here.”

When my brother and I started out, we joked about escape, we joked about freedom. Our choice of words seems embarrassing now. But we also told ourselves that we “were searching for Canada.” And perhaps we have found it here, or at least caught a glimpse of it, of something both elusive and near at hand. A yearning, a whisper, a wind.

What is Canada? Canada is a road trip. And like any good road trip, it is ultimately about freedom. [Til

Will Ferguson is the author and co-author of several books on Canadian history and culture. For more on Ferguson, visit his Web site at www. willferguson. ca.