Reclaiming the Legacy of Canada's 'Emancipation Day'

August 1, 2019 marks the 185th anniversary of Emancipation Day: a celebratory recognition of Black freedom in Canada. Emancipation Day honors the history, memory, and legacy of Black Canadians’ resistance to white supremacy. It also recognizes Canada’s complicity in the enslaving of Africans and how this colonial heritage stole Black liberation. However, this Black Canadian cultural tradition that once thrived is now barely surviving after more than 184 years. The holiday has significantly waned in terms of its public familiarity, currency, and relevance.

The resulting failure diminishes the tradition’s potential to unify, organize, and mobilize diverse Black communities around a consciousness of Black liberation in Canada. This is also a lost opportunity for deepening community development and fostering a sense of belonging within Black Canadian communities. This lost benefit further spreads to Black folks across the African Diaspora committed to Black liberation.

Emancipation Day in 2019 calls for a resurgence and restoration as part of its shared tradition of Black freedom within and beyond the borders of Canada.

On August 1, 1834, the British Parliament’s Slavery Abolition Act (1833) emancipated all enslaved Africans — more than 800,000 people — in British colonies across the Caribbean, South Africa, Britain, and in the former British colonies that now make up Canada. Since then, Black communities in Canada have celebrated Emancipation Day on August 1 every year as a commemoration of Black communities’ unfinished journey from enslavement to freedom in Canada.

Natasha L. Henry’s Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada details how this celebration emphasizes commemoration, education, community development, and entertainment.

This has included site tours of historic Black settlements, lectures, special memorial services, concerts, storytelling, parades, parties, barbecues, banquets, and other festivities. At the height of its popularity from the 1930s to the 1950s, Emancipation Day celebrations drew crowds of 275,000 people to a freedom festival entitled, “The Greatest Freedom Show On Earth.”

Despite the richness of this commemorative tradition, Emancipation Day festivities have markedly dwindled in recent years and in some cases disappeared from many Canadian communities and urban centers, including Toronto. This is important because it is in urban centers that we find the overwhelming majority of Canada’s Black populations. The diminishing stature of Emancipation Day since the early 1990s, despite fitful efforts to revive the celebration, is due to the emergence of other Black-focused festivities. February’s Black History Month, as well as North America’s largest street festival, popularly known as Caribana, now occupy the space and significance that Emancipation Day once occupied.

Each year, a strong chorus of Canadian Black communities lament and resent that these festivities lack the political messaging of Black pride and empowerment that inspired their creation. Critics point out how corporations using a message of Black cultural capitalism has removed the power and profit of these celebrations from Black communities. Nevertheless, Black History Month and Caribana still reign as rituals for honoring the historical presence of Black peoples in Canada.

But, Emancipation Day still matters because it pushes us to celebrate more than our presence.

Reviving Emancipation Day would encourage Canada to fully come to terms with its heritage of enslaving Africans.

Canada’s past involvement in enslaving Africans is arguably the most suppressed fact of its history. Serving as the “Promised Land” for African Americans escaping slavery through the Underground Railroad dominates Canada’s collective national consciousness. The damaging impact of this historical amnesia is that the Canadian public, as well as policy-makers and politicians, lack the context for understanding slavery’s long impact: punishing rates of unemployment, academic under-achievement, poverty, over-policing, incarceration, and early death. Canada’s continued suppression of its enslaving past fundamentally compromises its ability to identify and implement effective strategies for improving Black Canadian life. It also perpetuates the myth of Canadian racial exceptionalism, a national lie that depicts the country as free from anti-Black racism.

A resurgence of Emancipation Day would push Canada to more fully actualize the United Nations (UN) International Decade for People of African Descent. Between 2015 to 2024 under the theme of “Recognition, Justice and Development,” the UN’s International Decade calls countries to implement a program of activities focused on honoring and bettering Black lives within their respective jurisdictions.

There is currently no unifying, Black-led, community-guided national strategy or action plan for the activation of the International Decade in Canada, despite the funding already dedicated to support such initiatives. Black communities could use Emancipation Day to strategize for a political agenda of self-determination. This could build toward establishing a national forum for Black Canadian political organizing that extends beyond the International Decade.

Complementing the political benefits that Emancipation Day offers, personal growth and development could also be an integral focus of this celebration through inspiring collective and individual reaffirmations of the values of Black self-worth, confidence, spirituality, creativity, resistance, pride, and family.

Finally, a social, cultural, and political relaunch of Emancipation Day would reframe Black Canada’s robust history into the global narratives of Black radical freedom and resistance. Global African freedom struggles are unable to realize their full power and potential without a grounding in the learnings, teachings, and legacies of Black freedom-seeking in Canada — much of which developed alongside African American histories of resistance and liberation.

In sum, it is now time to reclaim Emancipation Day. It has the unparalleled potential to propel Black freedom in Canada and will benefit the liberation struggles across the African Diaspora. While there is a push to have Canadian law officially recognize the day, Canada’s Black communities must maintain a bigger mission, vision, and value for this historic freedom celebration. Sustaining this ritualized affirmation of Black pride requires that Canada’s Black populations proclaim its relevance and resonance for dignity, freedom, and justice. In Toronto, the community-led resurgence of the August 1 Freedom Train encapsulates this vision of Emancipation Day.

The reclamation of Emancipation Day isn’t just about recognition and the significance of a festival. It is much more about re-centering Black populations as integral to the formation of Canada, and thereby deepening diasporic understandings of Canada’s place as a significant site of global Black resistance — past and present.

About the Author

Anthony N. Morgan is a Toronto-based human rights lawyer, policy consultant and community educator. He is a frequent legal, social and public affairs commentator on issues concerning race and racism, critical multiculturalism and critical race theory in Canada. In addition to holding an LL.B. and B.C.L. from McGill University, Faculty of Law, he holds an Hons. B.A. from the University of Toronto in Ethics, Society & Law.