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Home Blog Black History Month: A celebration of past and present at the Law Society
Black History Month: A celebration of past and present at the Law Society

Black History Month: A celebration of past and present at the Law Society

By: Teresa Donnelly, Treasurer | February 23, 2022

Ahead of the first convocation of 2022, I want to reflect and celebrate the great tradition and heritage that lies within the 225-year history of the Law Society. 225 years is an anniversary worth celebrating, so here on the Gazette and in meetings throughout the year, we will be looking back at some of the events and milestones that have shaped Ontario’s rich legal heritage, as well as the significance of historic Osgoode Hall and its grounds.

February is also Black History Month, recognized at the Law Society, nationally and around the world. Earlier this month, I was so pleased to be a part of the Black History Month program featured as part of the Law Society’s Equity Legal Education Series. During this virtual event, a panel of legal professionals and leaders in education examined the impacts of equality, diversity and inclusion on BIPOC people and communities. If you weren’t able to make the event, I encourage you to view the recording which is accredited for 1 hour and 30 minutes of EDI Professionalism Content.

We may be two years into remote working and virtual meetings fatigue, but I am thrilled that more than 1400 attendees joined us for this year’s program, proving just how relevant and timely these discussions are, even when restrictions prevent us from meeting in person. It also shows the professions’ commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion.

As Treasurer, I share those values and a commitment to combatting anti-Black racism, and violence, discrimination, and racism of any kind.

As we celebrate Black History Month and take part in virtual events to mark the occasion, I encourage all of you to reflect on the lived experiences of Black Canadians and learn more about the remarkable contributions Black Canadians make – past and present – not only in February, but all year long.


To that end, I’d like to share with you in this blog post the story of John Anderson, an escaped slave who fled to Canada and who, in his fight for freedom, helped establish a clear precedent against allowing freed slaves to be extradited back to the United States.

Pictured leftThe Extradition of John Anderson
Portrait of John Anderson
Reference Code: E 450 A54-T9
Archives of Ontario

In 1853, John Anderson, a young black man, killed a Missouri man in self-defence while escaping slavery. Like many slaves before him, Mr. Anderson eventually made his way to Canada seeking freedom and refuge from the certain death that would face him in the United States.

By 1858 Mr. Anderson had settled in Caledonia, purchased a home and had become a respected member of his community; but his quiet, peaceful life was abruptly upended when in 1860, Brantford authorities arrested him on a charge of murder. They had been tipped off by another former slave who had befriended John Anderson and become his confidant. Mr. Anderson had never denied the accusation that he had stabbed the Missouri slave owner but insisted that he did so in self defence to save his own life and to secure the freedom he always believed he was entitled to.

The American government appealed to the British government within days of Mr. Anderson’s arrest, seeking his extradition from Canada, so he could stand trial in Missouri.

Mr. Anderson’s first trial began in 1860 in Brantford, to determine if there was sufficient evidence to charge him with murder under the laws of the province. Mr. Anderson was represented by Samuel Freeman, a Bencher of the Law Society. In the end, the Magistrate determined that sufficient evidence had been presented to charge John Anderson with murder and he was detained. No immediate actions were taken against him by the United States government and after more than a month, he was released.

Mr. Anderson’s freedom was short-lived as investigators from Missouri returned and brought with them evidence of the crime. By September of 1860, Mr. Anderson had once again been detained when after a one-day hearing, it was determined that there was enough evidence to sustain the murder charge. Mr. Anderson was sentenced to be detained until a formal warrant for his extradition arrived from the United States.

John Anderson's case had become an overnight sensation and a cause celebre. Abolitionists spoke passionately on public platforms about the evils of slavery and meetings were organized to demand Anderson's freedom and raise a defence fund. In the popular press and in the public mind, John Anderson came to symbolize the oppressed Black in America. It was the opinion of many members of the legal profession and the community at large, that the matter was one of natural rights and justice which no law or treaty could circumscribe.

With a warrant for extradition arriving from the United States, Mr. Freeman appealed to the Attorney General – John A Macdonald, who ultimately decided the matter should go before the Court of Queen's Bench on a writ of habeas corpus.

The hearing, which began in November, was both highly anticipated and highly publicized, so much so, that extra policing and security measures were taken due to the overwhelming public interest and crowds gathered at Osgoode Hall.

On December 15 in a split, 2-1 decision, the court ruled that Mr. Anderson had committed murder under Missouri law and could be extradited under the terms of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. Justice Archibald McLean, a staunch abolitionist, dissented, stating that in "...administering the laws of the British province, I can never feel bound to recognize as law any enactment which can convert into chattels a very large number of the human race."

Mr. Anderson’s immediate fate was protected by the court’s statement that it would not oppose an appeal. Meanwhile, both his lawyer and abolitionist supporters took next steps to secure his freedom. Mr. Anderson’s lawyer appealed the verdict to the Court of Common Pleas in Toronto, while abolitionist supporters in Canada rallied their British counterparts to appeal the decision before the British Court of Queen’s Bench at Westminster. That appeal was successfully argued and the British Court of Queen’s Bench at Westminster ordered Anderson released in January 1861. While a victory for the abolitionists, the decision caused much furor in Canada, as it was seen as a step back for the independence of the Canadian judicial system, in its evolution toward independence from Britain.

While the oversees appeal was proceeding, Mr. Anderson’s appeal was also heard at the Court of Common Pleas in Toronto. Acting again as counsel, Mr. Freeman successfully appealed on the grounds the crime committed was manslaughter, not murder, which was a crime not covered by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. He also argued that the authorities who originally arrested Mr. Anderson in Brantford had no jurisdiction because there had never been a formal murder charge laid against him in Missouri.

In February 1861, John Anderson was released to much celebration in Toronto and across Canada. Mr. Anderson travelled to Britain and became a prominent figure in the fight against slavery, giving speeches and visiting with supporters. He ultimately settled in Liberia in 1862.

Mr. Anderson had won his hard-fought freedom, but little did he know that his journey would set in motion a series of legal challenges that established a clear precedent against allowing the extradition of escaped slaves back to the United States, ultimately paving the way for the protection of future Underground Railroad refugees, until enslavement was banned in the United States in 1865.

To learn more about this case, please visit the following resources:
International Extradition and Fugitive Slaves| The John Anderson Case
John Anderson Extradition Case | The Canadian Encyclopedia
ANDERSON, JOHN |Volume IX (1861-1870) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography
The Webster Ashton Treaty | the Canadian Encyclopedia

To learn more about black history, please visit:
The Archives of Ontario
Canadian Heritage

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