Slavery in Canada began early in Canada’s colonial history and carried on until the first half of the 1800s.
Yet the perception lingers that the history of slavery in North America is unique to the United States. We’ve written about this lack of awareness before; our blog post, Black history deserves more than just a month, points out that too often as Canadians, we let ourselves off the hook with respect to racism, despite the documented injustices and multi-generational impacts. Our booklet, Slavery in Canada, written by Quebec-based hip hop artist and historian Webster, explains the little-known history of slavery in this land.
Slavery was finally abolished throughout the British Empire when the Slavery Abolition Act took effect on August 1, 1834. In the decades that unfolded afterwards, a scattering of towns in Canada began to recognize August 1 as Emancipation Day. For example, the town of Owen Sound in southern Ontario has been recognizing Emancipation Day for the past 160 years.
This year, for the first time, Canada will recognize August 1 as Emancipation Day at the federal level. That’s because on March 24, 2021, a motion designating August 1 as a nationwide day of emancipation was passed unanimously in the House of Commons, thanks largely to the efforts of Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard and the African Canadian Senate Group, along with the community backed efforts of people such as Rosemary Sadlier, who began pushing for this recognition in 1995. The decision followed Canada’s 2018 recognition of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent, which established a platform to fight anti-Black racism.
According to Senator Thomas Bernard, recognition is an essential step in the healing process for African Canadians: “Our history has been repeatedly erased. Enslaved Africans were stripped of their names in an attempt to strip them of their identities. After emancipation, our history continued to be erased by methods of segregation, murder and systemic marginalization.”
Moving beyond recognition
But it’s important to note that “marking” a day runs the risk of being entirely passive. For real progress to continue, we need more than just a tacit acknowledgement from Canadians and our government. Observing a shameful historical moment in our history is one thing. Doing something proactive to address its legacy is another.
Beyond recognizing an obscured part of our history, Emancipation Day encourages Canadians to actively reflect on the deeply rooted impacts of slavery in Canada, to recognize that the history of Black Canadians is part of our country’s collective history and heritage, and to talk and post about it so we all have the chance to learn more.
The day is also an opportunity to celebrate the culture and contributions of people of African descent in Canada. For example, the Toronto Caribbean Carnival was initially founded to mark Emancipation Day, and is now a lively, much-anticipated celebration of the living heritage of Caribbean peoples. Halifax will also host many events; Nova Scotia has also recognized Emancipation Day this year.
Some other thoughts on the need to move beyond passive observation of Emancipation Day can be found in Mark V. Campbell’s reflection on the cultural expressions of the African diaspora. Campbell argues that Afro-diasporic artistic creativity in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade is not just a matter of cultural expression, but a method and system of knowledge designed to save lives, rehumanize people, and rearticulate innovative ways in which humanity might exist in the face of systemic racism. It’s important that we try to understand these connections and fully appreciate what such art entails and preserves.
Breaking the silence
Another initiative, UNESCO’s Slave Route project, aims to shed light on how slavery has affected people on every continent and caused upheavals that have shaped our modern societies.
The project is built on the idea that ignorance and concealment of major historical events constitute obstacles to mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation among peoples. It is working to bring slavery out of the shadows and into the light to contribute to a better understanding of how it affected Africa, Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and Asia. It is also contributing to a culture of peace by asking people to reflect on concepts like inclusion, pluralism, intercultural dialogue and the construction of new identities and citizenships.
Finally, Emancipation Day is an opportunity to reflect on our future and our place in the world. As Ricardo Lamour points out in his article for Ricochet Media, What does August 1 mean to you?, the day is an invitation to Canadians to take a serious look at how Canada’s foreign policies have contributed directly to creating the conditions for what he calls a “prepared or precipitous” exodus of Black populations.
In summary, Emancipation Day aims to spark true empathy among all Canadians and motivate them to educate themselves and speak up to address the historical and ongoing injustices experienced by generations of Black people.
On this Emancipation Day, consider how you can contribute to global efforts to recognize the harms caused by slavery around the world.