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Emancipation Day

On March 24, 2021, the House of Commons voted unanimously to officially designate August 1 Emancipation Day. It marks the actual day in 1834 when the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into effect across the British Empire.

Canadians are not always aware that Black and Indigenous Peoples were once enslaved on the land that is now Canada. Those who fought enslavement were pivotal in shaping our society to be as diverse as it is today.

Therefore, each August 1, Canadians are invited to reflect, educate and engage in the ongoing fight against both anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and discrimination.

Emancipation Day celebrates the strength and perseverance of Black communities in Canada.

The transatlantic slave trade caused the deaths of millions of African people and their descendants. Many lost their lives as resistance fighters, during long treks to slave ships, or from mistreatment and malnourishment during the journey across the Atlantic. It is estimated that over 2 million African people died during that journey. In the end, most of the 12.5 million African captives were transported to Latin America and the Caribbean, while 6% were brought to North America.

Once landed in North America, enslaved Africans and their descendants were forced to work in fields, do manual labour and do domestic work in homes. They were forced to change their names, abandon their faiths, reject their cultures, and stop speaking their native tongues. The enslaved Africans were exposed to the most brutal forms of torture and abuse, all enforced by law.

In his book Canada's Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage, the Quebec historian Marcel Trudel estimated that there were approximately 4,200 enslaved people in the area of Canada known as Nouvelle France, and later in Upper and Lower Canada, between 1671 and 1831. Initially, approximately two-thirds of these enslaved people were Indigenous and one-third were of African descent.

After British colonial settlers established Upper Canada, the number of enslaved Africans and their descendants increased significantly. It is estimated that 3,000 enslaved men, women and children of African descent were brought into British North America and eventually outnumbered enslaved Indigenous Peoples. Many enslaved Black people resisted slavery by fleeing Upper Canada to a territory known as the Northwest Territory, which included Michigan and Ohio, as well as to Vermont and New York, which had banned slavery in the late 18th century.

The Black Loyalists and the Maroons

Over 3,000 Black people arrived in Nova Scotia between 1783 and 1785, as a result of the American Revolution and Loyalists migration. They had pledged allegiance to the British Crown and decided to flee revolutionary America. They were the largest group of people of African birth and descent to come to Nova Scotia at any one time. Despite the promises of prosperity, many were denied access to land they could cultivate. They also faced racism, shortages of food and clothing, and other harsh conditions like starvation and exploitation. Several hundred free and enslaved Black loyalists also settled in Upper Canada and enslaved people of African descent were also brought to Lower Canada.

In 1796, nearly 600 people, known as the Maroons, were deported from Jamaica to Nova Scotia, following their rebellion against the colonial government. Many worked on the third fortification at the Citadel in Halifax and on Government House. Others were formed into a local militia company to help protect Nova Scotia from a feared French invasion. After petitioning the colonial authorities to leave the territory, 551 Maroons sailed from Halifax to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in Western Africa, where they remained.

The Underground Railroad

In 1793, the Upper Canada legislature passed an act that granted the gradual abolition of slavery and any enslaved person arriving in the province was automatically declared free. As a result, over 30,000 enslaved African Americans came to Canada via the Underground Railroad until the end of the American Civil War in 1865. They settled mostly in southern Ontario, but some also settled in Quebec and Nova Scotia. Other migrations of Black people from the United States occurred during the War of 1812, when over 2,000 African American refugees came to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Indigenous Peoples Slavery

The enslavement of Indigenous Peoples is a dark chapter in Canada’s history. European explorers in the 1400s and 1500s were notorious for kidnapping Indigenous Peoples and taking them back to Europe to be enslaved or exhibited. Between the mid-17th century and 1834, it was recorded that there were 4,185 enslaved people. Of that number, 2,683 were enslaved Indigenous Peoples. It was not until after 1750 that the number of Indigenous Peoples transported into French Canada started to decline.

Indigenous Peoples were not granted basic human rights, and were treated as property, as they were continuously bought and sold for the primary purpose of manual and domestic labor. The majority of those enslaved were young women, with the average age being as young as 14 years old. It is reported that 57% of enslaved Indigenous peoples were girls or young women.

Emancipation in Canada

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 ended slavery in the British Empire on 1 August, 1834, which laid a pathway to freeing over 800,000 enslaved Africans and their descendants in parts of the Caribbean, Africa, South America as well as Canada.

For most enslaved people in British North America, the Act resulted only in partial liberation. It only freed children under the age of six. Others were to continue serving their former owners for four to six years as apprentices. The Act did however confirm Canada as a free territory for enslaved African Americans. Thousands of African Americans subsequently arrived on Canadian soil between 1834 and the early 1860s.



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