Josiah Henson: Building Shelter against Prejudice
By Patrick Berumen
Canada is known worldwide as a very diverse and hospitable country. However, to obtain such a righteous title, countless individuals have devoted their lives to abolish discrimination. When modern society looks back at the heroes who have shaped Canada to the embracing nation that it is today, it is impossible to overlook the contributions of Josiah Henson. Although his place of origin is the United States, his stand against slavery sparked a revolutionary change in Canada. Through his actions against slavery and his aid to the victims, Henson’s legacy remains a prime example of what it means to be a proud Canadian.
Born on June 15, 1789 as a slave to Isaac Riley, Henson was bestowed a life of pain and misery . Through his hard work, he earned the trust of his master and was appointed as a supervisor on the farm. In 1825, during an escort to Kentucky, Henson was presented with an opportunity to escape the bonds of slavery . However, he desired to obtain his freedom legitimately by paying the cost of liberty in Canadian dollars. Unfortunately, Riley rejected his offer and planned to keep him a slave for the rest of his life. On October 28, 1830, Henson and his family escaped to Upper Canada in the hopes of starting a new, free life. Settling near Dresden, Henson sought to help others who experienced the same nightmares he did while he was a slave. Through his natural leadership, Henson was able to organize his connections with the Underground Railroad to establish a safe haven for slaves: the Dawn Settlement. The sanctuary was a spark of hope in many people’s lives, as they were able to acquire both the education and the resolve needed to settle in a life with a secure future, a safe home, and a happy family.
As a society, we can learn from Henson’s thirst for ethical change. Despite being born into the world stripped of even the most basic human rights, he made a positive and profound difference in North America. Without the use of violence, he brought a community together to help support those who had suffered unjust crimes because of their skin colour. Henson strived to challenge the stigmatic mindset of North America during a time when no one dared question the time’s colonialist ideology. A similar hero is still needed in today’s society, as prejudice continues to be a malevolent force worldwide. For instance, when Renu Mandhane, an Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, analysed the data describing actions of the Toronto Police, she found that black people are more likely to be arrested and spend more time awaiting a trial than white people . A like-minded individual to Henson would have acted on his own accord in an effort to remedy the injustice of society. For Canada truly to be acclaimed for its diversity, we must come together as an embracing community and follow in the footsteps of Henson. Our individual actions can break the barriers placed upon those who suffer the anguish of prejudice. Whether it be through establishing a safe haven or simply taking a non-violent stand against racism, Henson has taught our society that change is possible.
It is an undisputable fact that Henson’s actions helped shaped the true face of Canada, as his selfless actions were revolutionary, even for today’s standards. His actions inspired Harriet Beecher, an abolitionist author, to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. The novel is a story that speaks out against slavery in an effort to abolish it. Beecher’s novel demonstrates that even decades after the Dawn Settlement’s debut, it continued to inspire others to continue the quest for a moral and free society. Undoubtedly, Henson has planted other, more discreet, seeds of courage among people of every ethnic background. Canadians are honoured to look up to people who desire righteous change, and Henson easily satisfies the criteria to be called such a hero.
Looking back at Henson’s accomplishments, Canada can always be a little more like Henson. In 1983, Josiah Henson was featured on a postage stamp, making him the first coloured Canadian to receive the honour . Through his adamant determination not to succumb to the discrimination of his era, he was able to develop Canada’s identity as the culturally diverse country it is today. By defying the status quo, Henson proved that we all can, and should, speak out against prejudice and aid those who have fallen victim to it.