The federal government is recognizing Emancipation Day for the first time this year, but at least one Canadian town has been celebrating it since before Confederation. Members of Parliament overwhelmingly agreed on March 24 to declare August 1 as Emancipation Day in Canada. Slavery was abolished in the British colonies, including Canada, on August 1, 1834.
The motion was introduced by Majid Jowhari, a Liberal MP from Richmond Hill, Ontario. The proposal was backed by Conservative MP Alex Ruff of Owen Sound, Ont., where Emancipation Day has been commemorated since 1862. According to the area’s Emancipation Festival website, Owen Sound was the farthest-north endpoint for the Underground Railroad, a network of hidden passageways and safe homes for Black individuals to escape slavery in the United States.
According to Jeffrey Smith, chair of the Emancipation Festival’s board, the day’s national recognition is significant after being celebrated in Owen Sound for 159 years. Smith said it was “wonderful” that the Emancipation Day motion was unanimously passed, and that political parties appear to be “coming up” to acknowledging social concerns such as racism and poverty.
According to him, the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, as well as the ensuing rioting, raised awareness of racism. Smith explained that the Owen Sound event has changed over the years, from being an all-Black picnic to include people of all races and now to acknowledging that Indigenous people in the region assisted slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, hundreds of people attended an Emancipation Day celebration in Windsor, Ontario, including celebrities and civil rights activists from around the country. Preston Chase, an Ottawa teacher who produced a documentary on his great-uncle Walter Perry’s involvement in organizing Windsor’s celebration, told in March that Perry would have been overjoyed if the motion had been approved by Parliament.
Since 2008, Ontario has celebrated Emancipation Day, and the City of Vancouver will follow suit in 2020. Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard of Nova Scotia had been advocating for the day’s federal recognition for years. In 2018, she introduced a private member’s bill in the Senate, but it did not go through first reading.
When the Liberal MP’s motion was approved in March, she stated that she believed it would “provide an anchor” for Canada to proceed toward future reparations. Annamie Paul, the first Black head of a major political party in Canada, claimed Emancipation Day had been overlooked for far too long.