Saturday, February 25, 2006

Emancipation Day...?

Yesterday night when I was out, waiting for the arrival of a friend, I was reading a free paper distributed in Toronto area pubs. In it, I read about Emancipation Day, which is celebrated in Windsor every August 1st (Windsor is the city in Ontario directly south of Detroit across the Detroit River -- yes, south of Detroit).

What's Emancipation Day? Well, in 1833, the British Parliament passed an act banning slavery. It took full effect at midnight of July 31, 1834. On August 1, 1834, slavery was banned throughout the British Empire, including British North America. At the same time, the legislature of Upper Canada (today the province of Ontario) passed a law making it illegal to return escaped slaves to the United States. For nearly two generations, until the US Civil War was sorted out, Canada became a haven for escaped slaves from the United States. Windsor, as the first Canadian place many of the slaves arrived at, has a special place in this history.

Ontario has a proud history in this respect... proud in the relative sense the word can be used where slavery is concerned, at any rate. Created in 1791 as a home for Loyalists (many of the black) fleeing the US after the Revolution, Upper Canada had for its first leader Lord Simcoe, who was an avowed abolishionist. While he could not ban slavery outright, he did persuade the new legistlature to undertake, as only the province's second act of legislation, to ban the importation of slaves into Upper Canada, and to legislate that any slave living in Upper Canada must be freed upon reaching age 25. While it didn't end slavery outright, it was effectively the death knell of the institution here, and it gave Ontario the distinction of being the first jurisdiction in the entire British Empire to officially move against slavery.

Certainly the course of African-Canadian history has not been entirely a smooth one. But I think it's important to remind the public of where we've come from, how far we've come and how proud we can be of living in a place that was so bold and important in the struggle to end slavery. Why should Emancipation Day be only recognized in Windsor? Shouldn't all of Ontario, maybe all of Canada, mark this day officially? What a wonderful thing to celebrate! The birth of freedom, the realization that human beings are human beings and due rights without regard to where they come from or what they look like... these are important things that should not be forgotten, but should be brought to mind every year. I think we as a people would be all the better for it. In Toronto, we celebrate Simcoe Day every August. Why not combine the two? A celebration of the end of slavery, and one of the first people in the Empire to move against it. Simcoe and emancipation! Something we can really be proud of.

1 comment:

A thinker said...

Haven't been around for a while. . .what a great concept. Canada is such a wonderful country. . .