Freedom ride connects the past and the present

By Lincoln DePradine


From left Ian Grant MP. Celina Caesar-Chavannes and her husband Vidal

Throughout the period of slavery, there were protest and rebellion as enslaved Africans struggled for freedom.

Now, 183 after Britain declared chattel slavery, in its colonies in North America and the Caribbean, formally abolished, demonstrations of protest and rebellion are still evident. They were on display on Monday in Toronto, at the fifth annual Underground Freedom Train Ride.

There were intermittent chants of, “Black lives matter’’, when a crowd gathered at Union Station for the opening ceremony that included songs, dancing, drumming, spoken words and speeches.

Mayor John Tory, in his speech in which he read a City of Toronto August 1 Emancipation Day proclamation, was interrupted by journalist and activist, Desmond Cole.

Tory is a member of the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB). Last week, Cole was removed from a TPSB meeting, fined by police and warned not to return.

“I don’t think that anybody here should be stopped from riding the liberation train, not even you,’’ Cole told Tory Monday night. “But, if you’re going to be here tonight, you have to hear and see what black liberation actually means.’’

Tory, in reading excerpts from the proclamation, said “Emancipation Day gives us an opportunity to explore and celebrate the rich African-Canadian history that has helped build our city’’.

The large gathering at Union Station included MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Parliamentary Secretary to the minister of International Development; former Liberal MP Dr Jean Augustine; former Ontario NDP cabinet minister, Zanana Akande; former Metro Councillor Bev Salmon; retired librarian Dr Rita Cox; and chair of the TTC, Councillor Josh Colle.

The event, which included a moment of silence as part of a train ride from Union to Sheppard West Station, is a way of connecting the past and present, said Itah Sadu, chief organizer of the Underground Freedom Train Ride.

“It is a celebration of the power and potential of people of African descent,’’ said Sadu, a well-known storyteller and co-owner of A Different Booklist.

“The carnival season,’’ she said, “is probably the most public expression of emancipation. And, as we move to the carnival celebration; and, as we move to a festival that is one of the largest in this country; (that) came to this country as a gift of people coming out of the Caribbean Diaspora; came to this country making a whole lot of money for a whole lot of people; we are here to signal-in the carnival season but to also recognize and mark August 1st as that calendar day when the British across their empire said that people of African descent will no longer be sold as commodities.’’

The Union-to-Sheppard train ride symbolizes the experience of African-Americans, who escaped slavery in the United States via what was known as the Underground Railroad.

In her remarks – as honourary train conductor – Akande noted that while Black people in Canada have made progress, they still face many challenges.

“Sometimes, I wonder if we’re free; when I have to worry about my grandsons to see that they have favour with who might meet them on the road or they might end up hurt,’’ Akande said.

“When times are rough, many of us are unemployed; and when times are good most of us are underemployed,’’ she added. “When I look back, I say we’ve come this far, we can go further. We’ve come this far, we can do the rest.’’

MP Caesar-Chavannes commended Akande, calling her “incomparable’’, and saying, “I am here because she was there. So, I appreciate you and I appreciate the work you have done’’.

Caesar-Chavannes also read a message of greetings from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The prime minister said while advances had been made in ending prejudice in Canada, “it is still clear that we have much work to do. What we are doing here tonight is the work that we have to do as a community, and I will stand with you as you continue to do that work’’.

At the opening ceremony, before the train ride, a plaque was unveiled in tribute to the country’s first union of Black workers – the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The plaque, sponsored by the Coalition of Black Trade Unions, will be permanently erected at Union Station.