There’s so much happening in our little corner of Canada this weekend.
You might say that in New Brunswick we are being emancipated from the emergency restrictions put in place to combat COVID. Starting yesterday, the province that cut off non-essential travel not just with Maine but also with all provinces west of here way back in March of last year, is now fully open to Canadians from across the country, with no border checks, registration requirements, or COVID tests. Yikes, that will be a bit unnerving. Masking and social distancing will now be up to individual establishments and individual citizens to determine. That will take some figuring out. One day in, most people are wearing their masks in most indoor places. Personally, I hope it stays that way.
Tomorrow is New Brunswick Day, a statutory provincial holiday when we all get a summer day off to appreciate how lucky we are to live in this beautiful, relatively peaceful place. As the only officially bilingual province – and the lobster capital of the world – we have much to be thankful for!
But today, August 1, is also a special day. A very special day. Today is a newly proclaimed day of recognition in Canada, Emancipation Day. I just wish there had been more news coverage of this impending Day in advance so more of us could participate in events. But we will do a better job of that next year now that we know. We should all be glad Emancipation Day has arrived.
The history behind Emancipation Day in Canada is worth sharing. Some version of this history exists everywhere, and recognition of this history is critical, as is proactively overcoming the continuing injustices and discrimination stemming from this history.
In March of this year, Canada’s Parliament unanimously voted to recognize August 1 as Emancipation Day, the day on which in 1833 the British Parliament voted to make slavery illegal and which came into effect on August 1, 1834. Several other countries that were part of the British Empire at that time have recognized Emancipation Day for several years; it is reassuring that Canada has come on board. My guess is that Black Lives Matters deserves a lot of credit for this recognition becoming a reality.
Having Emancipation Day does not preclude the need to focus on being proactive in teaching the experiences of Black people in Canada from the early days and especially to work hard at eradicating systemic racism. These actions need to be everyday occurrences, with Emancipation Day being an annual day to celebrate successes toward that end and also the many contributions of Black Canadians to our multicultural society.
A few Canadians will be aware that some of the United Empire Loyalists who fled the American colonies during the Revolutionary War because of their allegiance to the King, arriving in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and also southern Ontario, brought their slaves with them. More Canadians would probably be shocked by this. In fact, according to some historians, upwards to 4200 people were enslaved in New France, which is now Quebec, and then in Lower and Upper Canada (Quebec and Ontario) between the early 1670s and 1834. In other words, long before the fleeing United Empire Loyalists arrived in the 1780s, slavery was well established in what is now Canada. In those early days, undoubtedly some Indigenous people were enslaved as well as Black people.
Historical descriptions have a tendency to minimize the brutal reality for the enslaved through their detached wording. It is of course true that for many, many people around the world both then and now, their lives aren’t far off enslavement. They may work for factory owners or owners of mines who keep them literally on “slave” wages, so that they can barely stay alive, but staying alive requires them to be bonded to a life of terrible hardship. This is should be criminal everywhere, but sadly it isn’t.
But slavery means more than this. Slaves are considered chattel – goods owned by someone else. The well-off of the United Empire Loyalists would have brought their slaves just as they brought their furniture and other belongings. And if they wanted to sell them – or their spouses or children – they could and would do so. If they wanted to punish them or abuse them in any way, that went with the territory. Certainly there must have been some kind slave owners, just as there were undoubtedly a few kind nuns in some of the more than one hundred residential schools, but don’t kid yourself, for most people in these heinous situations, being enslaved was – and is – wretched, degrading, and inhumane.
The saddest part of all is that when the campaigns for abolition were finally won in Britain and its colonies, instead of people realizing that the wrongs that had been done to Black people needed to be corrected and atoned for, the attitude towards those who had been formerly enslaved did not die with emancipation. They may have become freemen and women, but that didn’t include anything resembling respect, desegregation, or equal opportunities, not for a very, very long time.
And it is this long, long, inexcusable period of time in which Black people in Canada have continued to endure racism in so many avenues of society that has to change. From the assumption on the part of some police that a Black man is guilty until proven otherwise to being passed over for positions for which they are clearly qualified, systemic racism is a scourge that has gone on for too long.
I hope and trust that this first ever Emancipation Day in Canada is the beginning of serious societal changes for the better. Changes that come from action, bringing about a fully just and fair society where everyone is respected for who they can be. Here’s to Canada’s first Emancipation Day.
Image source: CBC