The many ways to celebrate emancipation this weekend

By Lincoln DePradine

Tashia Antoine

While the end of July leading into August is widely recognized for carnivals in Toronto and some Caribbean countries – such as Barbados and Grenada – for many people, there is a more sombre and serious meaning to the period.

It was on August 1, 1834, after hundreds of years of enslaving African men, women and children, that Britain’s Emancipation or “Slavery Abolition Act’’ – passed a year before – came into effect.

The Act abolished chattel slavery and granted freedom to about 800,000 enslaved Africans in Canada and in the then British colonies in the English-speaking Caribbean.

However, for most enslaved people, it only was partial liberation, immediately freeing in 1834, children under the age of six. Others were to continue serving their former slave owners for four to six years as apprentices.

An amount, now valued at 178.6 billion in British currency, also was paid in compensation to the owners in 1834. Nothing was paid to the enslaved who endured generations of whipping, torture, beheading, rape and humiliation.

This year’s commemorative activities in the Caribbean include lectures and an “African Wear Day on July 29’’ in places such as Antigua and Grenada, where local organizations, in recent years, have been established with the dedicated aim of seeking reparations for slavery.


Historically, African-Canadians used the Emancipation Day proclamation for community events such as picnics; while, for Africans in the Caribbean, it evolved into an explosion of music, costuming and dance and the emergence of the modern Caribbean carnival of Trinidad and other Eastern Caribbean nations.

The Picnicking and carnivalling were combined in 1967 in Toronto, when Caribbean nationals launched the “Caribana’’ street festival. The organizers called themselves the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC).

The festival’s organizing, since being taken over by the City of Toronto-backed Festival Management Committee, has been rebranded as the “Toronto Carnival’’.

However, members of the Caribana Arts Group (CAG) – the successors of a reconstituted CCC – are attempting to ensure that the history of the Toronto festival, and its link to Emancipation, are remembered and commemorated.

They have organized an “Emancipation Walk’’, which includes music, costuming and speeches, for Friday, July 29, starting 8 am at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto.

“This unifying march will take form in a J’ouvert-style procession to signal the start of carnival weekend,’’ the CAG said.

Tashia Antoine, CAG’s vice-chair, said march participants are encouraged to “dress in either white to symbolize healing; or, in the costume of one of three traditional mas’ characters, showcasing Caribbean artistry and heritage, born out of the struggle of human rights and Black liberation’’.

The emphasis of the costuming for the march is on “Ole Mas’’, Jab and Sailor, Antoine said.

“We want it to be a throwback – if you will – where we can represent the traditional mas’ that does not really get represented in the Grand Parade and also to just connect the dots back to Emancipation; because, that’s what’s lacking in terms of the branding of our festival,’’ Antoine told The Caribbean Camera. “It is a public event and we’re encouraging everybody to come out.’’

The Canadian parliament, last year, unanimously voted to recognize August 1 as Emancipation Day across Canada.

Throughout the weekend, until Monday, August 1, Emancipation-related events will be held by various groups in different communities. Owen Sound is said to have the “longest-running Emancipation Day festival in North America’’. It’s reported to be in its 160th year in 2022.

Owen Sound was the most northern terminus for African fleeing slavery in the United States to Canada, via the Underground Railroad. Events in Owen Sound will be held July 29-31.

“This festival brings a lot of attention to the history in Owen Sound
and the Grey County area and has been a catalyst to the culture and history of the area,’’ said Owen Sound mayor, Ian Boddy. “It’s important that we continue to recognize the important contributions that Black Canadians have made and continue to make.’’

In Toronto, the annual Emancipation Day Train Ride is July 31. The event, titled, “A Night of History & Legacy’’, is put on by A Different Booklist Cultural Centre in collaboration with other organizations such as the Toronto Transit Commission, Coalition of Black Trade Unions (Ontario), Zero Gun Violence Movement, and the African Canadian Heritage Association.

Participants will assemble 11 pm at Union Station on a journey taking them to Sheppard Station West.