John Baker, considered to be the last person of African descent born into slavery in Canada, was born a slave in Quebec in the 1780s and died in Cornwall in his 90s in 1871.
His death didn’t mean the legacies of this country’s 200-year history of slavery died with him. Canadian senator Wanda Thomas Bernard suggests that 150 years after Baker’s death, anti-Black racism remains an issue in Canada.
While Ontario is one of three provinces that observe August 1 as emancipation day, the federal government will make it a country wide Emancipation Day celebration. The declaration follows the US which last Thursday recognized June 19th (Juneteenth) as the official day as the end of slavery in that country.
“Acknowledging Emancipation Day essentially means that Canada is finally acknowledging that slavery was a part of our history,” says
Bernard. “That’s not been the way Canadian history tells the history of African presence in Canada.”
Usually, she says, history texts focus on the Underground Railroad, the network of routes and safe houses used to smuggle slaves from the U.S. to freedom in Canada. They tend to gloss over Canada’s history of importing, owning and buying enslaved people.
“The narrative that’s been taught in this country is one that we’ve been better than our neighbours to the south; that slavery didn’t exist here; that this was the land of freedom and opportunity that the poor African Americans were able to escape to,” says Bernard.
The British Empire’s abolition of slavery didn’t mean the beginning of equity. What it did was open the doors for nefarious, systemic discrimination, says Bernard. And that’s the battle that Black people in Canada face today.
M-36 was introduced by MP Majid Jowhari and passed in March 2021 making August 1st Emancipation Day across Canada. The proponent for officially recognizing August 1st as Emancipation Day was Rosemary Sadlier, who began the process in 1995, securing the City of Toronto, Metro Toronto and then the unanimous Bill 111 effecting Emancipation Day in Ontario in 2008 while also creating the first Emancipation Day educational/social/cultural events in Toronto at various venues. It was further introduced, and not successful, several times in the House (with MP Deepak Obdrai), in The Senate (with Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard), until this most recent success with MP Jowhari.