By Neil Armstrong
Emancipation Day (August 1) will be celebrated in Toronto with an annual train ride organized by A Different Booklist Cultural Centre and an event hosted by the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS).
On August 1, 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act, also known as ‘Emancipation Day,’ secured the freedom of people of African origin throughout the British Empire which included Canada.
This year the OBHS will hold its annual celebration of freedom with a series of events, starting on August 1 at the Artscape Sandbox in Toronto.
Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard of Halifax, Nova Scotia will be the keynote speaker that evening that will also feature artists from the city.
The Canadian senator will be among hundreds that will gather at Toronto’s busiest subway station, Union, at 10:45 p.m. on July 31 for the 7th annual Emancipation Day Underground Freedom Train Ride which will start there and end at Sheppard West station where the celebration welcoming Emancipation Day will continue until 1:00 a.m.
Under the theme #ResilienceDespitetheOdds, the train ride will feature leaders, activists, and politicians from the Black community in Toronto.
Among them will be literary critic and poet, George Elliott Clarke, and Senator Thomas Bernard will act as the conductor following in the tradition of Harriet Tubman, lead conductor of the Underground Railroad which led many African Americans seeking freedom to Canada.
“This ride, symbolic of the role of the Underground Railroad in Canadian history, is free and open to the public. Everyone should know and have freedom, and it’s our collective responsibility to liberate,” said the organizers.
Referencing a recent article by Toronto-based human right lawyer, Anthony Morgan, and news stories about immigration officers recently conducting street checks in Toronto, and other issues, they said, “we are not there yet.”
“Emancipation Day honours the history, memory, and legacy of Black Canadian’s 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,” writes Morgan.
He notes that, “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.”
The organizers said #FTR2019 is “a continuation of A Different Booklist’s traditional effort to strengthen and unify our community.”
Natasha Henry, now president of the OBHS, in her book, ‘Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada,’ writes that, “The end of the horrific, inhumane practice of African slavery in all British colonies was the result of the determination of enslaved Africans in the New World, including Canada, along with Black and White abolitionists in the Western Hemisphere and in Europe.”
Henry notes that the passage of the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Bill was a victory for those who advocated fervently, but most importantly, for the people who were emancipated.
“In recognition of their newly acquired freedom, which came into effect in most British territories on August 1, 1834, former slaves quickly created a venue from which to express their allegiance, elation, and gratitude. The first day of liberation was a joyous occasion, for which emancipation came freedom and much cause for great celebration.”
Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Black Canadian Network and past president of the OBHS, says in 1997, in support of the initiative of the Caribbean Historical Society of Trinidad and Tobago, she began seeking official recognition of August 1 as Emancipation Day.
“I was successful with the City of Toronto, Metro Toronto, the City of Ottawa, and by 2008, the Province of Ontario. It has gone to second reading twice in our Canadian Parliament.”
Sadlier noted that with the new federal government and a more sizable Black Caucus, she initiated a parliamentary petition to facilitate/ensure that August 1 would be considered for national commemoration. She said she initiated the idea with Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard who was happy to take it on and make it a Senate matter.
“With her incredible support, and the hard work of her office, Bill S-255 – An Act proclaiming Emancipation Day, has gone to second reading,” says Sadlier about the senator.
Sadlier is encouraging people to celebrate the day in any way that suits them, whether it be a spiritual service at their place of worship, a community event, or crafting a letter to have Emancipation Day off as a paid holiday or joining the Emancipation Day Underground Freedom Train Ride.
Morgan recently wrote a creative Afrofuturistic article which he entitled a “Template letter to employer requesting a day off for Emancipation Day” for the Nova Scotia Advocate.
“Maybe you will find something going on in your community that will commemorate August 1st as Emancipation Day! Maybe that means that you will contact your Senator to let them know that you want to see August 1st recognized in Canada! It is Black History and it is Canadian History!” writes Sadlier in an email.
[This story has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, July 25-31, 2019.]