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A legacy of courage: The story of Black Loyalists in Canada

Black history is Canadian history. And one of the most important moments in our history dates back over 200 years ago on the shores of Port Roseway, Nova Scotia.

As the War of American Independence (1775-1783) raged on, the British sent out proclamations to enslaved people across the United States and promised them full protection, freedom, and land if they joined the battle against American revolutionaries. These courageous people who took up arms in pursuit of a better life came to be known as “Black Loyalists,” and were loyal to the Crown. As history holds though, we know the British in deed lost this war and were forced to flee the US in 1783.

When they departed, over 3,000 Black Loyalists and close to 30,000 white Loyalists voyaged up the east coast to British North America. Upon landing in Nova Scotia, Black Loyalists settled in areas such as Halifax, Annapolis Royal, Shelburne, Tracadie and in Birchtown. At the time, this was the largest settlement of free Black people outside of Africa.

For many Black Loyalists, the promise of a better life went unfulfilled. Climate and agricultural conditions here were harsh, the land grant system favoured white Loyalists, and unemployment, lower wages and discrimination were the norm. Tensions mounted in some places, and in 1784, a mob of disbanded soldiers targeted Black Loyalists in Birchtown and Shelburne, N.S., in the first recorded race riot in North America.

Disillusioned, about 1,200 Black Loyalists left Nova Scotia in 1792 to build a new life in the West African country of Sierra Leone. Those who remained in British North America helped redefine Canada's history and character.  Today, the descendants of Black Loyalists can lay claim to an extraordinary legacy of courage and perseverance, a fundamental part of Canada's story that should be honoured and remembered.

The Black Loyalist Heritage Society is an organization committed to discovering, interpreting, safeguarding, and promoting the history and heritage of the Black Loyalists. Cynthia Dorrington, a descendant of Black Loyalists, is the site manager at the Black Loyalists Heritage Centre in Birchtown, N.S. In the video below, she recounts their arrival in Nova Scotia in 1783.

To celebrate Black History Month, we are honoured to share and pay tribute to this incredible story, with a stunning silver coin, featuring the Black Loyalist Heritage Society coat of arms and their motto, “the heart of your knowledge is in your roots.”

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