Slavery in New France
Ages 11-14

MysteryQuest 6

Slavery in New France

Author: Catherine Duquette

Editor: Ruth Sandwell

Series Editor: Roland Case

A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 11-14

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It may be surprising for you to discover that slavery was a practice found not only in the United States but also in New France. Indeed, you only need to read documents from this period to realize how crucial slaves were to the life in the colony. Yet, when we think of slavery, we tend to think of American slaves who lived and worked on cotton or tobacco plantations. How did the slaves of New France live and work? What were their origins? Who were they? Where did they come from? What was their role in this society?

Most historians agree that ordinary citizens in eighteenth century New France were not only poorer and less healthy than the typical Canadian today, but they lacked the civil rights and freedoms that we take for granted. Perhaps the lives of slaves and ordinary people in New France did not differ all that much.

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In this Mystery Quest, you will assume the role of an historian interested in slavery in eighteenth century New France. As part of your inquiry into comparing the life of commoners and slaves in the Colony, you will examine primary documents written about the events of Montréal’s fire of 1734 and the accusations that faced an African slave named Angélique. You will also use secondary documents — the interpretations of historians who have looked at slaves and commoners in New France. Your goal is to answer the question: How significantly different was the life of ordinary citizens (commoners) and slaves in New France?

Your first task is to gather information on commoners and slaves in New France – first by finding out more about Angélique and then about the lives of slaves. To know what their life was like, you will need to look at various factors — work, personal freedom, legal protection, and overall living conditions. Once you have an understanding of the life of a slave, you will need to gather information about commoners. You will then compare the groups, using criteria to determine quality of life. When you have reached a conclusion, you will present your findings and supporting evidence in a poster or a PowerPoint presentation.

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STEP 1: Learn more about Angélique

Before beginning your MysteryQuest, you may want to learn more about the story of Angélique — a Black slave — who was thought to have started the great Montréal Fire in 1734. You will find documents about Angélique listed in the “Secondary documents” section of Evidence in the Case.

STEP 2: Gather information about slavery in New France

As an historian, you depend on primary documents as the main source of information for your study. You will now have to use these documents to help you learn about slavery in New France. Eight short documents are listed in the “Primary documents” section of Evidence in the Case.

You will need to gather information from all of these documents. First, try to discover who wrote the document and for whom it was written. Because the documents were written in the 1700s, you may have to read the passages several times to understand them. You may have to infer information — that is, make conclusions based on evidence. For example, in one of the documents it states that “a valet” (a man’s personal servant) was paid 150 livres a year, which was more money than most servants earned. We can infer from that information that wealthy people might have employed valets as servants, and not as slaves.

Use the chart Evidence about Life in New France to record the information you collect from all of these documents about the life of slaves.

STEP 3: Gather information about commoners

Now that you have a better understanding of the roles and rights of slaves in New France, you need to examine the life of commoners in order to make the comparison. Begin by reading Life of Commoners in New France. This briefing sheet gives limited information. In order to gather a better understanding of life in New France, you will need to review two other secondary documents:

Common People

As you read these three secondary sources, look for information about commoners to record in a new copy of your data chart Evidence about Life in New France.

STEP 4: Determine quality of life

Now that you have completed your research, you can analyze your findings. It would be easy to say that slaves were not free and commoners were so they had a better life. But first you need to decide other factors that make for a good quality of life.

Think of all the things that make a good life — a home, a nurturing family, good health, safety at work and at home, enough food to eat, and basic rights. These are the things that provide a good life – that make your quality of life. Consider the following criteria when determining quality of life:

  • enough nutritious food to eat;
  • shelter;
  • support from friends or community;
  • good health;
  • security from harm at work and at home;
  • and basic rights.

You are now ready to compare the quality of life of slaves and commoners in New France. Organize the research you have collected on the chart Comparing Quality of Life. In the columns for “slaves” and “commoners” list the information you have for each criterion. For example, what evidence could you find to suggest that slaves or commoners had proper shelter? Depending upon the evidence, decide whether the slaves or commoners had the same quality of life as far as shelter is concerned. Or perhaps one group had much better or slightly better shelter. Give reasons to explain your rating for each quality of life factor.

STEP 5: Present your conclusions

You are now ready to answer your original question:
Overall did one group — slaves or commoners — enjoy a significantly better quality of life in New France?

Create either a poster or a PowerPoint presentation to present your conclusions. Make your presentation interesting by adding illustrations and charts, but don’t forget to answer the question. In order to do so, you will need to refer to the data charts you have completed.

To help you create your PowerPoint presentation or your poster, refer to the evaluation rubrics, which state the different elements that will need to be present in your final product.

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The evaluation rubric Assessing the Evidence and Conclusions may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant evidence from the historical documents and draw plausible conclusions about the quality of life of slaves and commoners.

The evaluation rubric Assessing an Informative Account may be used to assess how well you were able to create a presentation to illustrate, with relevant evidence and plausible conclusions, whether slaves or commoners in New France had a better quality of life.

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Learn more about slavery
For more information about opposition to Slavery you may use the link below to read quotes from Philippe You de La Découverte's criticism of selling slaves in New France.

Examine modern day slavery
You have just looked at slavery in New France. Yet, slavery is still present in the world today. Child labour in developing countries is often present among other events. Using the Internet or journals available at your school library, see the various forms in which slavery is present today.

Compare slavery in Canada and the United States
Compare slaves living in New France with slaves found in Southern United States at the same period. Did they share similar roles and tasks?

Explore other challenges
Apply your detective skills to other mysteries associated with Angélique and life in New France during this period. Different MysteryQuests invite you to explore the following issues:

  • MysteryQuest 2 — whether or not Angélique was actually guilty of the crime for which she was executed;
  • MysteryQuest 13 and MysteryQuest 18 — what life and working conditions were like for various groups of women in New France;
  • MysteryQuest 16 — the reasons why some people opposed slavery while the majority in New France supported it.

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Activity Sheet: Evidence about Life in New France

Briefing Sheet: Life of Commoners in New France

Activity Sheet: Comparing Quality of life

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Secondary documents


The Trial in Context

Primary documents

Who were the slaves in New France? (Consult chapter 10)

On laws regarding slaves

On how to bring up slaves and to whom belong the children born of two slaves

On work done by slaves

On how masters viewed and treated their slaves

On the role of the master

On how to liberate the slaves

On the baptism of slaves (and their age)