Canada Celebrates Emancipation Day, Highlighting History Of Slavery In The Country
Aug. 1 marks the day slavery was outlawed in the then-British colony.
August 01, 2022 at 5:25 pm
Canada is celebrating Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the Aug. 1, 1833, Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire in 1834. Though informally celebrated for generations, the occasion has only recently become a federal holiday in the country. In doing so, the holiday highlights the little-known history of slavery in Canada and has stirred up calls for greater efforts to address the lingering effects of such oppression.
Long, forgotten history of slavery in Canada
Canada is often remembered as a haven for Black people fleeing slavery and oppression in the United States, a story that is true but obscures Canada’s history. Slavery was practiced in colonial Canada for 200 years before it was abolished. French colonists primarily enslaved Indigenous Canadians, while the English imported enslaved Black people from Africa and continued to enslave their descendants.
Though the scale was much smaller than in the United States, thousands of Canadians suffered enslavement before the institution was abolished. Even when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, only children under six were immediately liberated. Others had to work for several years before gaining their freedom.
Canada first recognized Emancipation Day last year
Black people throughout the English-speaking diaspora have been celebrating Emancipation Day since gaining their freedom almost 200 years ago. For years or sometimes decades, Emancipation Day has been celebrated as a holiday in several Caribbean and Central American countries, such as Belize and Trinidad & Tobago, that were formerly British colonies. The holiday had also long been celebrated by African Canadians. However, it was only during the racial reckoning that emerged after the death of George Floyd that Canada declared Emancipation Day an official holiday in 2021.
Prime minister promises work is being done against enduring racism
In his announcement commemorating Emancipation Day 2022, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the ugly history of slavery in the country and the reality that “the legacy of systemic anti-Black racism is still embedded throughout our society, including in our institutions.” At the same time, Trudeau assured Canadians that the government was already working to address the lingering impact of slavery.
He referenced Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy, a 2019-2022 plan to fight discrimination against Black, Indigenous and other marginalized Canadians. The prime minister specifically highlighted the plan’s Black Justice Strategy to undo systemic discrimination in the criminal justice system.
Scholars call for formal apology for slavery as next step
Scholars and activists have argued that simply celebrating Emancipation Day isn’t enough. Several scholars have called for the Canadian government to formally apologize for slavery. Even though slavery was abolished before Canada gained independence, they argued, the country was still built on the foundation of slave labor.
Apologizing, they argue, would move toward reconciling the country’s slaveholding history, a history that many Canadians do not even know existed. Many of these scholars are additionally calling for greater education about Canada’s past. Nova Scotia Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard has also joined the movement for a federal apology for slavery, saying that it “would signal to African Canadians a recognition that our presence and our contributions and the harms that we’ve experienced over the years, that there’s some ownership… there’s some responsibility taken for that.”
Calls for Canadian reparations
Beyond apologies and education, some advocates have demanded that Canada pay reparations to help repair the continuing damage of slavery. Historians have pointed out that Canada did previously pay reparations. Much like in the United States, the largest federal reparations program in Canada compensated former slaveholders.
The British newspaper Daily Mirror reported that the UK continued to pay off debt from that compensation until 2015, yet formerly enslaved people and their descendants have not been compensated. However, Canada has in recent years agreed to pay compensation to Indigenous Canadians for abuses committed against them, raising the possibility that further payments could be made to victims of oppression, including the country’s Black population.
A move toward reparations or a greater acknowledgment of Canada’s history with slavery may take years to implement. Yet, the continuing official acknowledgment of Emancipation Day is a useful step in the process as the country confronts the worst parts of its history with the hope of creating a better future for all Canadians.