Top photo by: Natalya Danko; Bottom photo by: The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes
CRRF's statement on Canada's first-ever Emancipation Day.
On August 1st, 1834, British North America put into law the Slavery Abolition Act, ostensibly freeing nearly one million enslaved Africans across the British Empire. However, 187 years later, the reverberations of 200 years of the enslavement and colonization of African and Indigenous people still echo throughout Canadian society.
It is a good thing to celebrate the end of legalized servitude. But the recognition of the end of slavery will always ring hollow if the descendants of the enslaved are not also emancipated from the residual effects of enforced oppression. In Nova Scotia, between 1783 and 1785, 3,000 people of African descent settled in the province after fighting for the British during the American Revolution. They fought as a means to escape the unconscionable oppression they faced in America and for the promise of being relocated to a land where they thought they truly would be free. Instead, they were met with further racial discrimination-- barred from accessing what they needed to satisfy their basic needs. In the present day, many of their 21,000 descendants still await the fulfillment of that promise and are still healing from the wounds of that discrimination. Environmental racism, repeated attempts to erase their culture, and deliberate exclusion from the halls of decision-making continue to haunt African Nova Scotians in a province they helped build.
If we are to celebrate Emancipation Day, we must also acknowledge that while we may have ended and broken the physical chains of slavery, our systems have enacted many forms of psychological and mental enslavement. Canada enslaved two-thirds of the indigenous population before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834. Yet even after slavery was officially abolished, the physical enslavement of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people was replaced with the residential school system-- systemic enforcement of cultural genocide that existed for a further 160 years. The system destroyed indigenous culture and family structures for generations. The wounds of generational oppression and abuse shouldered by indigenous men women and children are evident in the deeply troubling statistics around their overrepresentation in the prison system, despite almost never receiving justice for the evils committed against them.
For Black people in Canada, many of whom are the descendants of enslaved Africans, Emancipation only comes from fixing and improving systemic racism that continues to oppress its population. For example, despite being only 3.5 percent of the population, Black people make up 7.2 percent of Canada's prison population. Last year, reporting from the Ontario Human Rights Commission showed that only one in five Black people charged with a resulted in an actual conviction, highlighting grave concerns at the systemic nature with which criminal charges are applied to Black bodies.
Emancipation is not about a day. Nor should it be reduced to a rehashing of the past ills of slavery. Emancipation must be a call to action. A quest towards the elimination of systemic racism and racial oppression in the present. Emancipation should be a foundational principle by which we continue to build and perfect our society. We should be proud to live in a country where the enslavement of humans is an illegal practice, but to be fair, this is the bare minimum in the scope of human rights. Real achievement comes from living in an equitable and just society that continuously works to fix and eradicate any systems that hinder law-abiding citizens from reaching their full potential to truly live as free human beings. August 1st should be a date for both celebrating how far we have come as a nation while taking stock of how much further we need to go. Anything less runs the dangerous risk of extolling performative symbolism rather than the accomplishment of real progress.