Emancipation Day: An Opportunity to Learn and Reflect
Please note that most of the information in this article is gathered from third party sources.
As a society, our attitudes and standards continue to evolve as we come to terms with the darker periods in our history. A constructive way to build awareness and education around such events involves the creation of special days, declared in recognition of past wrongs that should be acknowledged, not ignored or swept under the national carpet.
One such example is Emancipation Day on August 1, which celebrates the end of enslavement in Canada. Yes, slavery played a role in our country’s past, though many Canadians are unaware that Black and Indigenous people were enslaved within the lands we now call Canada.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade caused the deaths of millions of African people and their descendants. By some estimates, more than two million African people died during the journey, and many more perished due to mistreatment and malnutrition when they arrived in the New World. Most of the 12.5 million African captives were transported to Latin America and the Caribbean, while six per cent were brought to North America. Enslaved Africans and their descendants were forced into manual labour and domestic work. Most had to change their names and abandon their faith, culture and language. They endured torture and abuse, all enforced by law.
Quebec historian Marcel Trudel estimated that from 1671 until 1831 there were about 4,200 enslaved people in Canada. Initially, approximately two-thirds were Indigenous and one-third were African but, during the British colonial period, some 3,000 enslaved Africans were brought into British North America, eventually outnumbering enslaved Indigenous peoples. From 1783 to 1785, arising from the American Revolution, about 3,000 Black people loyal to the British Crown came to Canada, primarily to Nova Scotia. Another 600 people known as the Maroons were deported from Jamaica to Nova Scotia in 1796. Though they were not enslaved, these people suffered racism, starvation and exploitation.
Indigenous peoples were similarly enslaved and subjected to terrible abuses, often treated as property to be bought and sold for manual and domestic labour. The majority of those enslaved were women, some as young as 14.
The Underground Railroad
Some Black enslaved people fled from Upper Canada to Michigan, Ohio, Vermont and New York, which banned slavery in the late 18th century. In 1793, the legislature of Upper Canada granted the gradual abolition of slavery; any enslaved person arriving north of the border was automatically declared free.
The Underground Railroad was a secret network of slavery abolitionists who helped enslaved Black people from the southern U.S. states escape to the free northern states or into Canada. The so-called ‘railroad’ was a complex system of helpers, safe houses and transportation. People travelled by foot, wagons, horseback and occasionally by boat or train. The dangerous journey was often undertaken at night, and sometimes bounty hunters followed former enslaved people into Canada, to be captured and returned to enslavement in the U.S.
Up to 40,000 fugitives were smuggled across the border this way. The Underground Railroad operated until the U.S. banned slavery in 1865.
Canadian Emancipation Day declared in 2021
On March 24, 2021, the House of Commons voted unanimously to officially designate August 1 as Emancipation Day. This marks the date in 1834 when the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into effect throughout the British Empire, ending enslavement for some 800,000 people in Canada and parts of the Caribbean, Africa and South America.
Emancipation Day gives Canadians an opportunity to reflect, learn and engage in the ongoing fight against racism and discrimination. You can get involved by finding information online (Heritage Canada’s website is a good start), engaging in conversation about the history of enslavement and its ongoing cultural repercussions, and supporting the many organizations working to eradicate racism.
What is “Juneteenth”?
Not to be confused with Emancipation Day in Canada, “Juneteenth” commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, celebrated annually on June 19th. It is also called Emancipation Day or Juneteenth Independence Day. The name “Juneteenth” references the date of the holiday, combining the words “June” and “nineteenth.” Although this date has been commemorated in various U.S. states since emancipation was declared in 1865, the day was only officially recognized as a federal holiday in the U.S. in June 2021 by President Joe Biden.