Commentary by Pearl Lorentzen
Canadian and American histories are linked, but not identical. This means that the current impact of history isn’t identical. As Canadians, it is important to learn from our own history.
Recently, there’s been talk about Juneteenth (June 19), the oldest day to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States.
However, Canada has an older one.
Starting on August 1, 1834, Emancipation Day has been celebrated in parts of Canada and the US, and in the West Indies, says The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Members of the African Canadian community along with white and Aboriginal supporters gather at various locations across the country to commemorate the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies on 1 August (1834). Celebrants parade through main streets, and attend church services and speeches. Picnics, dances and other festive cultural activities are held in celebration.”
Like the many Americans who hadn’t heard of Juneteenth, many Canadians, including myself, hadn’t heard of Emancipation Day.
In 2008, Emancipation Day became a provincially recognized day in Ontario. This is the only province that recognizes it. It was also the province where the majority of the slaves in 1834 lived.
The Canada Encyclopedia article ‘Slavery Abolition Act, 1833’ says there were slaves in Canada up until August 1, 1834, and some continued in unpaid ‘apprenticeship’ for four to six years. At the time, there were less than 50 slaves in Canada, but earlier there had been more.
In Canada, not all slaves were Black.
Another Canadian Encyclopedia article ‘Black Enslavement in Canada’ says, “out of approximately 4,200 slaves in New France at the peak of slavery, about 2,700 were Indigenous people who were enslaved until 1783, and at least 1,443 were Black people who were enslaved between the late 1600s and 1831.”
The history isn’t all doom and gloom. Canadians were also involved in protesting slavery. In 1793, Canada past the first law to limit slavery in the British Commonwealth. Also, from 1793 onward, many people escaped slavery in the United States by running away to Canada.
The Ontario law recognizing Emancipation Day includes the statement “ancestors of Ontario’s Black community were one of the founding communities of Ontario and Canada. The Black community has been present in Ontario for more than 300 years.”
There is currently a bill before Parliament to recognize Emancipation Day as a national recognized day.
This hasn’t moved forward, says Peace River-Westlock MP Arnold Viersen. All private member bills are on hold because of COVID-19. It is one of three days which raise recognition on the issue of slavery. July 30 is the United Nations World Day against Human Trafficking. Viersen has attempted to make February 22 National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
While illegal in Canada, slavery isn’t just a historic issue. The Canadian Women’s Foundation ‘Fact Sheet: Sex trafficking of women and girls in Canada’ (2014) found that 93 per cent of sex trafficking victims in Canada were Canadian citizens.
Canadian history is unique and deserves a platform. It is important to accept the bad parts of history, along with the good. These keep us from repeating the mistakes of the past and allow us to celebrate its victories.