Group renews call for Canada to apologize for its role in slavery

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard

When the federal government recognized Emancipation Day for the first time in 2021, it stopped short of apologizing for its role in slavery.

Now, the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition is renewing its call for that apology to take place.

“I don’t really know why the apology sort of fell by the wayside,” said a visibly irritated Vanessa Fells, the group’s director of operations.

“If you’re going to recognize Emancipation Day, which is the end of the slave trade in the British Empire, then perhaps apologizing for those atrocities, should also go with that.”

Fells has created a second petition to the federal government that calls for an apology from Canada, a renewed commitment to addressing the generational effects of enslavement, and the official recognition of Black Canadians as a distinct group in this country.

Fells said Black Canadians often feel relegated to a larger group of visible minorities.

“And when that happens, we tend to get lost,” she said. 

“So by creating legislation that legally recognizes us as people, you’re then starting to again create more ways for conversation and create more ways to repair these past harm.”

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard

The petition needs 500 signatures to go before the House of Commons.

It’s the second petition of its kind. The first, which Fells was also a part of, resulted in a private members bill and a unanimous decision by MPs to formally mark Aug. 1 as the day the British Empire abolished slavery.

On that day in 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect, freeing about 800,000 enslaved people in most British colonies.

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard has been one of the people pushing Canada to confront its horrific history, and to begin to make reparations for it.

Thomas Bernard indicated that an apology is necessary because it “would signal to African Canadians a recognition that our presence and our contributions and the harms that we’ve experienced over the years, that there’s some ownership … there’s some responsibility taken for that.”

The petition points to apologies Canada has made to groups such as the Japanese and Ukrainians who faced discrimination and persecution. It also notes that in 2017, a report by the United Nations called for Canada to apologize for the lasting harms caused by slavery.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travelled to Nova Scotia to apologize to the descendents of the No. 2 Construction Battalion for the discrimination and racism they faced during the First World War. 

“To get it right, a lot of consultation has to go into the apology,” said Andy Fillmore, the MP for Halifax who sponsored both of Fell’s petitions.

“The government really didn’t say no to making this apology that they requested, it was more like we need to get this right and we’re on our way to it,” he added. 

Fillmore is a member of the Parliamentary Black Caucus, which he says is standing by Fells and also requesting an apology.

After the petition closes on March 8, Fillmore said he will table it in the House of Commons and the government will then have 45 days to respond. 

In an email, a spokesperson from the Office of the Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion wouldn’t say whether an apology could be coming. 

“We recognize that while slavery was abolished nearly two centuries ago, Canada’s dark history and the destructive legacy it has had on generations of Black communities across the country still exists today,” the department said.

The spokesperson said Canada is committed “to continuing to work with Black communities to break systemic barriers, fight inequities, and build a better future for everyone.”

That needs to begin with an apology, said Fells.

“Being able to recognize that and apologize for it is the first step in reparations. It’s the first step in repairing this type of harm.”