While Juneteenth (June 19) is celebrated in many US states as its Emancipation Day, Canada does not have an official day to recognize when members of its Black community were freed from slavery.
The day does exist though, because while unknown to some, August 1 marks the day that chattel slavery officially ended in Canada and across the British Empire.
According to the Royal Commonwealth Society of Canada (RCSC), in March 1793, John Simcoe, then Governor of Upper Canada — what is now Ontario — learned that an enslaved woman named Chloe Cooley was forcibly bound and taken by boat across the Niagara River to be sold.
“Nobody’s perfect, but the good part about Simcoe is that he saw something that happened that was wrong and tried to address it,” Rosemary Sadlier, an author and chair of the Toronto branch of the RCSC, told Daily Hive in an interview. “That is what caused him to attempt to end the enslavement of people of African descent in this country.”
However, Sadlier says he was forced to compromise as many of the officials he worked with in government-owned slaves and were not interested in giving them up.
That same year, Simcoe managed to pass legislation banning the importation of enslaved Africans into Upper Canada and guaranteeing freedom for the children of enslaved Africans born after that date when they reached the age of 25.
The RCSC says this is the first such law of its kind in the British Empire, and it would eventually lead to the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in 1807.
It would still take almost 30 more years for the kingdom to pass the Slavery Abolition Act and fully bring an end to chattel slavery on August 1, 1834, in Britain, Canada, and several other colonies.
Ontario is currently the only province to have officially recognized Emancipation Day, and the August civic holiday that falls on the first Monday of the month has been named Simcoe Day in honour of the abolitionist.
To Sadlier, however, who has been lobbying to have the day recognized officially for 25 years, Ontario was only one of many steps to see the day officially recognized across the country, a battle still being fought today.
In 1999, a private member’s bill would be brought to the house of commons by the late Deepak Obhrai, an MP for Calgary East, proposing the official recognition of the day.
“It is important to recognize the heritage of Canada’s Black community and the contributions that it has made and continues to make to Canada,” the bill reads. “Whereas it is also important to recall the ongoing international struggle for human rights, which can best be personified by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and … it is appropriate to recognize August 1 formally as Emancipation Day and to celebrate it.”
The bill would not reach a third reading in parliament, however, falling victim to a common political stumbling block — the end of the parliamentary session.
“It went to second reading twice in the house under Deepak Obhrai, who’s now deceased,” says Sadlier. “The records still remain of what he said and what he did, but because governments change and what have you it never got the third reading.”
Several other bills would follow, including in 2008, and again in 2018. A petition was also sponsored by Beaches-East York MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith asking for the commemoration of the day.
While the petition was politely declined by the government, based on already existing commitments to multiculturalism, the bill then made it to a second reading in the Senate but once again, the session would end.
“More recently,” Sadlier added, “in March it went to first reading in the house and then COVID came.”
While Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, a supporter of the bill, would say at the time we were watching “pandemics of racism and COVID-19 collide” across the world, the emergence of the health crisis has stalled the bill once again.
Undeterred, the advocates of recognizing Emancipation Day continue to work for its passage.
“It speaks to the resistance, it speaks to unity, it speaks to the efforts of people of African descent to make themselves free,” Sadlier said, “but it also speaks to those people on the other side of the equation who even if they may have come to the party a bit late did choose to work towards ending slavery.
“There were advocates on both sides of the racial divide who were working towards the same purpose. And if we can look at that effort to work together and bring that into the present, continually, well then I think we’re doing a great job.”