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Emancipation Day celebrations predate Canada's official proclamation by decades

·3 min read
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., second from left, attends Emancipation Day celebrations in Windsor, Ont., in 1956. Emancipation Day — now officially recognized by the federal government — marks Aug. 1, 1834, when slavery was abolished in British colonies, including Canada. (Silver Wave Film Festival - image credit)
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., second from left, attends Emancipation Day celebrations in Windsor, Ont., in 1956. Emancipation Day — now officially recognized by the federal government — marks Aug. 1, 1834, when slavery was abolished in British colonies, including Canada. (Silver Wave Film Festival - image credit)

Emancipation Day is being recognized by the federal government this year for the first time, but at least one Canadian community has celebrated it since before Confederation.

On March 24, members of Parliament voted unanimously to designate Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day in Canada. The date marks Aug. 1, 1834, when slavery was abolished in the British colonies, including Canada.

The motion was introduced by Liberal MP Majid Jowhari, who represents the riding of Richmond Hill, Ont. It was seconded by Conservative MP Alex Ruff of Owen Sound, Ont., where Emancipation Day has been celebrated since 1862.

Owen Sound was the farthest-north end point for the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses for Black people to escape slavery in the United States, according to the area's Emancipation Festival website.

'Clapping from up high'

Jeffrey Smith, chair of the Emancipation Festival's board, said it's meaningful for the day to be recognized nationally after being celebrated in Owen Sound for 159 years.

"My parents are probably clapping from up high right now," he said.

Smith said it was "great" to see the Emancipation Day motion passed unanimously and that political parties seem to be "opening up" to recognizing societal issues, including racism and poverty.

"I think education and the internet have done a wonderful job in terms of making people aware. That awareness is turning things," Smith said. The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 and the subsequent riots also led to increased awareness of racism, he said.

WATCH | Emancipation Day is 'a reminder of what's left to be done':

Smith said the festival in Owen Sound has evolved over the years — from being an all-Black picnic to including people of all races and now to recognizing that Indigenous people in the area helped slaves who were escaping on the Underground Railroad.

From the 1930s until the 1960s, an Emancipation Day celebration in Windsor, Ont., drew thousands of participants, including celebrities and civil rights leaders from across the United States.

Preston Chase, an Ottawa teacher who released a documentary about his great-uncle Walter Perry's role in creating Windsor's celebration, told CBC News in March that Perry would have been elated about the motion passing in Parliament.

"But he'd probably say, 'It's about time.'"

Ontario has officially marked Emancipation Day since 2008, and the City of Vancouver followed suit in 2020.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard of Nova Scotia had been calling for the day to be recognized at the federal level for years. She introduced a private member's bill in the Senate in 2018, but it didn't make it past first reading.

When the Liberal MP's motion passed in March, she said she hoped the move would "create an anchor" for Canada to move toward other reparations.

"It's important for us to acknowledge how slavery is really embedded in the current anti-Black racism that we're experiencing [and] current conditions of systemic racism that we're trying to address," Thomas Bernard told CBC's Mainstreet at the time.

WATCH | Emancipation Day recognition forces Canada to confront 'its full history,' senator says:

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, the first Black leader of a major political party in Canada, said Emancipation Day had been ignored for too long.

"For almost 200 years, Emancipation Day has gone generally uncommemorated, and untaught, though people of African descent have lived in Canada since the transatlantic slave trade, and the Indigenous Peoples of these territories predate the colonialists," she said.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

CBC
CBC
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