According to the online Free Dictionary, the legal definition of “emancipation” is the act or process by which a person is liberated from the authority and control of another person.
In the modern legal context, the concept of emancipation refers most often to minor children seeking to be released from the authority of their parents. Historically, however, it is most notably associated with freeing Black people from slavery. On August 1, 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act, the parliament had passed the previous year at Westminster, came into full force and effect. It formally ended chattel slavery throughout most of the British Empire, including Canada. Enslaved people of African descent were eventually free to pursue their own desires and were no longer under the authority and control of other human beings.
In 2021, August 1 will take on a new significance. A new federal law to officially recognize Emancipation Day at the national level was passed by the House of Commons on March 24. As communities across the country prepare for this first-ever official celebration of Black freedom, we must ask the question:
What does “emancipation” really mean for Black Canadians historically, at present, and in the future?
Many Canadians have operated for years under the mistaken impression that there was no African slavery in this country. The mythology built up around the Underground Railroad一the coordinated efforts to help fugitive American slaves to escape north of the border into present-day Canada—failed to examine the real impact of the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery passed by the legislature of Upper Canada. While Black people south of the border followed the North Star to freedom, folks who were enslaved at the same time in Upper Canada fled the territory heading south to find their freedom in America.
One of the great paradoxes of slavery was that Black people could view Canada as both a destination for freedom and a place requiring an escape from servitude at the exact same time. We’ve always held this duality in our history, yet no one talks about both aspects of life for Blacks in British North America at the time. It boils down to an essential truth: Even when Canadians passed laws supposedly aimed at ending the slave trade, we simultaneously enshrined African slavery into our laws, condoning the trade of human beings for labour and profit.
Are We Really Free?
In the present day, how emancipated do you feel as a Black person? Does the substandard access to healthcare that was laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic brighten your outlook? Are you pleased when you look at the rates of incarceration for Black Canadians, where “nearly one out of every 15 young Black men in Ontario has experienced jail time, compared to approximately one-in-70 young white men”? Or perhaps the situation of Black children in schools warms your heart, even when a recent BCG/CivicAction study showed that our students are “four times more likely to be expelled from a Toronto high school than White students,” among other disturbing findings? Maybe you think we should focus on business and economic development instead—however, “75% of Black entrepreneurs say that if they needed to find $10,000 to support their business, it would be difficult for them to do so” due to systemic barriers to accessing such support.
In every facet of Canadian society, it is possible to find some Black people who have managed to make it work for them and achieve success on their own terms. Once you get past those exceptional few, however, there is a mass of people who find themselves disadvantaged by (among other things): biased recruitment and hiring processes, slanted expectations from prejudiced managers and co-workers, race-based workplace harassment and microaggressions, limitations on promotion and upskilling opportunities, and blatant institutional discrimination (such as the systemic problems highlighted in the ongoing class action lawsuit brought against the Government of Canada by Black employees of the federal public service). Racist ideas about Black people play a role in the kinds of jobs we hold, the incomes we earn, the art forms we can excel in, the sports where we can make our mark, the cultural institutions where we can express ourselves fully, the shape of our families, the very length of our lives. We face constraints at every turn; yes, we can overcome many of them through struggle and perseverance, but the extra effort required to do so is a burden that subtly and substantially slants the playing field against us at every turn.
None but Ourselves Can Free Us
Yet, when we think about the future of Blacks in Canada, we see that we do have a chance to shift the landscape to honour our abilities, skills, expertise, and ambitions. The dark times that the last two years have presented to all Canadians also shone a shaft of light onto anti-Black racism in this country. While people may disagree about what needs to be done about it, the number of people who still try to deny its existence has shrunk markedly.
It took the deaths of three African Americans in particular (Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and, especially, George Floyd) to refocus minds on what was happening north of the 49th parallel. When people looked more closely, they were disturbed by what they found. Coupled with the reckoning with the horrifying legacy of the Indian Residential School system, Canadians are newly aware of the depth of our country’s historic and contemporary manifestations of inequality, discrimination, and cultural violence inflicted upon communities of colour. With this knowledge comes the challenge of how to create a society more willing to accept the contributions, talents, innovations, and accomplishments of Black Canadians, as well as other people of colour and the Indigenous nations of Turtle Island.
It also places a requirement on the Black community to do a much better job of telling our communal story and pursuing social, economic, cultural, and political opportunities with greater dedication, strategic focus, and hunger to win. It is time to take action to liberate ourselves from anything we find to be oppressive or racist and seize control and authority over our personal and community dominions into the future.
None but ourselves can free us. The time to do so is now.
Happy Emancipation Day, Canada.