Aug. 1 is the first page in a new chapter on Canada’s dark history, says Black Advocacy Coalition (BACupNorth) president Ambe Chenemu.
The day is also the country’s first officially recognized Canadian Emancipation Day, marking the date in 1834 when the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect across the British Empire. MPs in the House of Commons voted unanimously on March 24, 2021 to recognize Aug. 1 as Canadian Emancipation Day.
History finally recognized
Chenemu, who founded BACupNorth in October 2020, said he was excited when he learned about the recognition of Emancipation Day.
“It was something that a lot of Black people have been waiting for and looking forward to,” he said, pointing out how long it took for Canada to acknowledge the history of enslavement of Black and Indigenous people. “If it took this long, it puts things into perspective. It’s been almost 200 years since the Abolition Act came into effect. There’s been a lot of hard work over the years that has gone into that. I think as a country we’ve taken a step closer to recognizing history.”
For the first Emancipation Day in the North, the Nunavut Black History Society hosted an online celebration on July 31. Chenemu uploaded a video speech in which he spoke about the lingering effects on Black people of marginalization, discrimination and inferiority caused by slavery and segregation.
“Let every first day of August be a reminder of the strength we have in our diversity. Be a reminder of hope that the future has a place for every one of us to play an important role to move towards a more inclusive and more tolerant Canada,” he said.
More complete history
Chenemu explained that Emancipation Day is an opportunity to show a different side of history other than the popular view that Canada was a safe haven for Black people escaping slavery south of the border through the underground railroad.
“That’s the history we usually hear. I think Emancipation Day is the acknowledgement that Black people have come a long way and slavery did happen here,” he said. “There were lots of Black slaves. Canada has denied that history and only now is Canada acknowledging that it did happen.”
A federal Canadian Heritage portal, citing the research of Quebec historian Marcel Trudel, states that there were about 4,200 enslaved people in New France and Upper and Lower Canada between 1671 and 1831. Two-thirds were Indigenous and one-third were of African descent. The number of enslaved Africans increased after the British established Upper Canada, until they eventually outnumbered Indigenous slaves.
Building a better Canada
But Chenemu emphasizes that the recognition of history is just a first step towards rectifying the injustice and inequities existing in Canada.
“If you look at the Black and Indigenous communities and the percentage of people filling up our prisons and jails, Black people and Indigenous people are over-represented in the prison system. Are we truly emancipated?” he asked. “It’s great to start by recognizing Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day but so much work needs to be done. This is the beginning of turning a new page.”
A good place to start for many Canadians is education, both on the institutional level of school curricula and individually, Chenemu said.
As an example, he points to the Book of Negroes by Ontario author Lawrence Hill, whose work of historical fiction focuses on a girl who is abducted from her village in West Africa and sold into slavery in South Carolina.
“We all have a role to play in building the Canada we want to see tomorrow,” Chenemu said. “Some people say, ‘Don’t blame me for things that happened in the past. I didn’t do it. I was born into this.’ No one is blaming anyone. (We) want to make sure that the next chapter of Canadian history should be better than the past and everyone in Canada has a role to play in that history, whether it’s at the workplace or how you interact with members of the Black and Indigenous communities. That’s better than passing the buck or living in denial of the reality we all face.”