The enslavement of Africans in the place we now call Canada began in 1628 with Olivier le Jeune, and the enslavement of Africans did not end until the British Imperial Act of 1833 went into effect in Canad on August 1, 1834.
It also lead to the freedom of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, South Africa and other parts of the British-controlled world.
It was celebrated or commemorated in Canada, with solemn services, joyful events, the “Big Picnic” in Port Dalhousie and parades. That tradition continued well into the 1960s, when the largest such Emancipation Day celebration in Windsor was halted due to security concerns.
In 1967, the centennial project, known as Caribana, and created by Black people from Canada, the Caribbean and Africa, began. There was a celebration, again, but not necessarily the recognition of the reason for the celebration, in this country, over the August 1st long weekend.
In 1997, in support of the initiative of the Caribbean Historical Society of Trinidad and Tobago, I began seeking official recognition of August 1 as Emancipation Day. I was successful with the city of Toronto, Metro Toronto, the city of Ottawa, and by 2008, the province of Ontario. It has gone to second reading, twice, in our Canadian Parliament.
With the new federal government and a more sizeable Black Caucus, I initiated a parliamentary petition to facilitate and ensure that August 1 would be considered for national commemoration.
In the meantime, I had also initiated the idea, with Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, who was happy to take it on, making it a Senate matter. She publicly announced that she would champion August 1 as Emancipation Day, last year, on the steps of Union Station, at the gathering that took place prior to the Emancipation Day — the Underground Railroad Freedom Ride. With her incredible support, and the hard work of her office, Bill S-255, an Act proclaiming Emancipation Day, has gone to second reading.
There are times when the idea of transformative versus incremental change seems to immobilize people. I want to encourage you, I want you to do the thing that fits for you, I want you to feel that you have a role you can take in furthering the celebration or in having it formalized. I want you to take the action you can!
Maybe that means joining the Emancipation Day/Underground Railroad Freedom Train ride. Maybe that means there will be a spiritual service at your place of worship, with a focus on Emancipation Day.
Maybe that means crafting that letter to have Emancipation Day off, as a paid holiday. Maybe you will find something going on in your community that will commemorate August 1 as Emancipation Day.
Maybe that means that you will contact your Senator to let him/her know that you want to see August 1 recognized in Canada! It is Black History and it is Canadian History!
It is the UN Decade for People of African Descent: recognition, justice and development. The symbolic end of enslavement in Canada is sufficiently significant to be officially commemorated. You can be part of that. I hope you will!
Rosemary Sadlier OOnt
Author, Speaker, Consultant; Past President of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS); Chair, Royal Commonwealth Society – Toronto Branch; President, Black Canadian Network; Fellow, Ontario Teachers’ Federation; Appointed Member, Canada Post Stamp Advisory Committee; Member, National Ethnic Press and Media Council; CEO Sadlier Communications