Emancipation Day

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The New Brunswick Black History Society’s poster commemorating Canada’s first official Emancipation Day on Aug. 1. (Mia Urquhart/CBC)

After years of campaigning by Black legislators and community advocates, Canada finally officially designated August 1 as Emancipation Day – recognizing that slavery was officially abolished on August 1, 1834 when an act came into effect banning slavery in former British colonies, including Canada.

Reuters reported that Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, a leading figure in the years-long push for federal recognition of Emancipation Day, said,

The day is not a celebration but rather a time of reflection, a time of remembering our ancestors and a time for honouring our ancestors.

The national recognition of Emancipation Day signals the beginning of what we do next.

If we use our collective power, Emancipation Day and the recognition of Emancipation Day should propel us to move forward in very positive ways, she said.

Like the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, the history of slavery in Canada remains largely unknown, with much more attention paid to – and more education available on – slavery in the United States, which made Juneteenth a national holiday to commemorate the end of the practice. This happy ignorance has given my fellow Canadians and I something to be smug about. But it seems every year something more is revealed about our sordid past from which we must seek truth and reconciliation.

Slavery was practiced in the early colonies of what later became Canada, with one historian estimating that 4,200 people were enslaved in New France (the modern-day province of Quebec) and then in Upper and Lower Canada (Quebec and neighbouring Ontario) between 1671 and 1831.

Faith in the Public Square?

The 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade was marked in 2007. Eric Metaxas published “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery“. He records Wilberforce as an interesting and nuanced person who took years to fight for the abolition of the slave trade. It became the defining battle of his life – a life given to many social concerns.

In the thick of the battle for abolition, one of its many dedicated opponents, Lord Melbourne, was outraged that Wilberforce dared inflict his Christian values about slavery and human equality on British Society. ‘Things have come to a pretty pass,’ he famously thundered, ‘when one should permit one’s religion to invade public life.’

Though the story of emancipation is greater than one person’s efforts, Wilberforce’s force of character is a good one to study. In 1796 he would write:

Before this great cause all others dwindle in my eyes… If it please God to honour me so far, may I be the instrument of stopping such a course of wickedness and cruelty as never before disgraced a Christian country.

The same year Metaxas’ book came out, the movie “Amazing Grace” hit theatres (not to be confused with the release in 2019 of the movie about Aretha Franklin).

How will you Commemorate Emancipation?

I might suggest you see the movie, and/or pick up Metaxas’ book as a starting point. But you know there’s more – so much more to learn, to change, to do…

For more, see “Why American Race-Relations affects me as a German-Canadian“.