Olivier Le Jeune National Historic Person

Illustration of two man, a boy and a ship
Artistic rendition of Oliver Le Jeune, Material from The Kids Book of Black Canadian History, written by Rosemary Sadlier and illustrated by Wang Qijun, is used by permission of Kids Can Press Ltd., Toronto. Illustrations
© Wang Qijun, 2003

Olivier Le Jeune was designated as a national historic person in 2022.

Historical importance: First documented person of African descent living on a permanent basis in Canada (New France), provides a glimpse into the experiences of enslaved people based on historical records.

Commemorative plaque: Cartier-Brébeuf National Historic Site, 175 de l'Espinay Street, Québec, QuebecFootnote 1

Olivier Le Jeune (died in 1654)

Born in Madagascar or on the coast of Guinea, Le Jeune is the first documented person of African descent to have permanently resided in what is now Canada. He was sold into slavery as a child and arrived in Québec City during the English occupation (1629–1632), where he was sold again and later given to Guillaume Couillard. On this site, he learned French from Jesuit Paul Le Jeune. He was baptized a Catholic in 1633. All of this contributed to Le Jeune being severed from his African identity. His life provides insight into the experiences of enslaved people many decades before New France officially participated in the slave trade.

Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
English plaque inscription

Olivier Le Jeune

Commemorative bronze plaque with golden text
Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada commemorative bronze plaque for Oliver Le Jeune National Historic Person, located in Québec

Olivier Le Jeune was the first documented person of African descent to have lived on a permanent basis in Canada (New France) during the first half of the 17th century, as well as the first person of African descent known to have been enslaved in the colony, decades before it became a participant in the Atlantic slave trade. Le Jeune’s life, from his birth in either Madagascar or Guinea, to being forced to come to the Americas, to being reduced to personal property, provides a glimpse into the experiences of enslaved people based on historical records. In Québec City, for example, he learned the basics of the Catholic faith and the French language before being baptized in 1633, an act that contributed to the process of dehumanizing enslaved people of African descent, stripping them of their identities and connections to communities in Africa.

Few details are known about Olivier Le Jeune. He is thought to have been from either Madagascar or Guinea. Enslaved at a very young age, he was transported to Europe, where, on an unknown date, he was “given” to one of the three Kirke brothers. Between 1629 and 1632, an English privateer “sold” Le Jeune for 50 écus to Le Baillif, a French clerk who worked for the English. When England returned Quebec to France in July 1632, Le Jeune was “given” to Guillaume Couillard de Lespinay, who sent him to the Jesuit priest Paul Le Jeune to learn the basics of the Catholic religion and the French language.

"Olivier Le Jeune embodies many things. While he was the first person to be enslaved in Canada, he was also the first African to live here permanently. He enables us to understand the plurality of our past, from the beginnings of the French colony."

Aly Ndiaye, (a.k.a. Webster), Hip-hop artist, activist and lecturer, nominated Olivier Le Jeune for designation as a person of national historic significance

In early August, when asked if he wanted to be baptized, the young African boy told Father Le Jeune and Guillemette Hébert that he feared if he was baptized he would lose his identity. His fear was so strong that Father Le Jeune postponed the baptism until 14 May 1633. The boy was baptized as Olivier, after Olivier Le Tardif, head clerk of the Company of One Hundred Associates. It may have been around the same time that he became known as Olivier Le Jeune.

"To share the history of Olivier le Jeune is to acknowledge the first enslaved African (that we have a name for), and it underscores the reality that slavery existed on the lands we now call Canada for almost 200 years. We honour Olivier le Jeune since he represents a painful part of our past while we work towards greater inclusion and equity for all."

Rosemary Sadlier, Black history author, educator and former president of the Ontario Black History Society, nominated Olivier Le Jeune for designation as a person of national historic significance

In 1638, Olivier Le Jeune was accused of slander. He had alleged that Nicolas de Saint-Aignan Marsolet received a letter from Le Baillif, who was considered a traitor for having collaborated with the English. Marsolet was a former interpreter who had become the Seigneur de Bellechasse (Berthier). In defence of his reputation and not wanting to be linked with Le Baillif, Marsolet filed a lawsuit against Le Jeune. Le Jeune was found guilty of slander and ordered to seek Marsolet’s forgiveness and suffer the torture of 24 hours in iron chains.

Olivier Le Jeune died on 10 May 1654 when he was in his thirties. In his burial record, the priest wrote only that Le Jeune was a servant.

This press backgrounder was prepared at the time of the Ministerial announcement in 2023.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

Get information on how to participate in this process

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