Canada is often thought of as a refuge for American slaves who escaped over the border to freedom.
But a more shameful picture of Canadian history emerged for Central Alberta author Kevin Bannister while he was researching his new book, The Long Way Home.
His novelization of the lives of two escaped slaves who became black Empire Loyalist leaders during the American Revolutionary War was recently published by U.S. publisher-on-demand Fireship Press.
In the seven years it took for him to research and write his first book, Bannister found many examples of slavery in Canada in the late 1700s. “At the end of the American Revolution, white loyalists from New York were able to bring their slaves up here…
“There was slave trading, and bounty hunters were coming up here to find runaway slaves,” he said. “All of this happened in Canada, but we don’t like to think of it too much.”
Bannister first came upon references to Thomas Peters and Murphy Steele in North American history books. He was intrigued by their life stories, since Peters, in particular, is often considered the first African-American hero.
The two former slaves fled across the border into Canada after fighting for England as leaders of all-black military units during the American War of Independence. They tried to forge new lives for themselves and other black loyalists in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick but constantly came up against discriminatory treatment.
“It wasn’t so rosy,” said Bannister. “The black pioneers were not treated the same as white loyalists. They had difficulty owning land and difficulty trying to farm.”
Peters repeatedly petitioned various colonial governors to try to even the playing fields for black loyalists. But after six years of unfruitful petitioning, Peters resolved to take his case directly to the British government in London.
He was ultimately given the option of relocating to what’s now Sierra Leone in West Africa. Peters recruited other black settlers in Nova Scotia for colonization of the African country. He became a leader in Freetown and one of the founding fathers of a new nation.
Despite Peters’ courage and resolve, very little had been written about the man behind the struggle, said Bannister, who found Peters mentioned mostly as a side character in other people’s stories.
He hopes The Long Way Home, which is based on historic fact mixed with imagined conversations, redresses some historic omissions and helps more readers learn about the two important, charismatic leaders.
Bannister is a former newspaper editor and retired investment house vice-president who now ranches west of Innisfail. He’s in the midst of writing his second novel on a contemporary ranching family.
The Long Way Home is available from Amazon, Chapters and other booksellers.