The road to Emancipation Day in Canada

By Rosemary Sadlier

Rosemary Sadlier

On March 22, 2021, a virtual reading of M-36 took place in the House of Commons with evidence of all party support when read by MP Majid Jowhari.  On March 24, 2021, M-36 was passed unanimously, effectively naming August 1st Emancipation Day – a national day of celebration, commemoration and honour.

It is a date when the 1833 British Imperial Act was passed. It later went into effect on August 1st 1834 in Canada. The bill freed the last enslaved Africans here – ending over 200 years of chattel slavery on the lands we call Canada. 

Much is owed to them and to all the ancestors, on both sides of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade – a horrendous historical experience that connects us. It is a statement of the impact this first global abolition bill effected, fueling abolition movements worldwide. It went into effect here, in Canada, on August 1, 1834.

I have been working to see official commemoration of August 1st as Emancipation Day since 1995 while with a Provincial Heritage Organization – the Ontario Black History Society; while self-represented; and while head of the Black Canadian Network and with, most recently, the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS).  

From Left: Kathleen Wynne, Monte Kwinter, Margret Best Rosemarie Sadler and Ted Arnott on the occasion of Ontario’s first Emancipation Day in Ontario 2008.

I had joined forces in 1995 as a social justice advocate from Trinidad and Tobago in formalizing August 1st as Emancipation Day here in Canada. My efforts were conducted in a non-partisan manner. We immediately began a process of educating the public and holding receptions, talks and outreach. 

Fairly quickly, the City of Toronto, then Metro Toronto issued proclamations for August 1st.  By October 1996, we had secured a proclamation with the City of Ottawa.  I was in Ottawa for many events and met political figures who claimed interest in supporting this, including MP Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party, who held a reception in support of his interest.  By 1999, MP Deepak Obdhrai used one of his private member’s bills to secure August 1st as Emancipation Day, Bill C-282.  However it did pass on second reading and failed in another attempt in 2000.

It should be noted that Canadian celebrations had waned following the loss of Walter Perry (Windsor) and B.J. Spencer Pitt (Toronto) as well as the popular venues they used. “The greatest show on earth” held in Windsor, was the largest Black cultural event in North America prior to Caribana, but it was closed down by Canadian police and politicians concerned about the potential for rioting during the 1960s civil rights protests. Any other celebration, at the time, was focused on Caribana, or loosely run small family events, not always with the educational nor strategic direction we hoped for the event.

My initiatives succeeded when in the 1990s proclamations were issued by the City of Toronto, Metro Toronto, and the City of Ottawa.  Starting in 1995, I had created annual Emancipation Day events which included the Shouter Baptists and other religious groups, Consulates, elected officials, international guests, educational speakers and food. By 2008 an all-party, Bill 111 was approved unanimously in the Ontario Provincial Parliament led by MPPs Ted Arnott, Maria Van Bommel and Peter Kormos. Emancipation Day was created in Ontario.

I was the keynote speaker at the first celebration in Windsor at the Caboto Banquet Hall at the invitation of U.S. Consul General John Nay in 2008. Many other celebrations and programs at Queen’s Park, with representation from all political parties, took place around the province. A combined celebration (Emancipation Day/Simcoe Day), with international guests, was held in the presence of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario David Onley at Fort York National Historic Site some with attendance of 2000 persons.

I proposed the idea to MPs Arif Virani 2015, as well as Greg Fergus (creating and submitting a Parliamentary Petition by 2016) and Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard.  Bernard took my idea as Bill S-255 to second reading in the Senate; it was not successful.  While I was able to secure the support of opposing forces in The Senate, the session ended before this could happen. It was then returned to the House where MP Majid Jowhari read the final successful Emancipation Day motion on March 22nd with the unanimous vote on March 24, 2021.  This made it Emancipation Day across Canada!  On June 28, 2021, it was adopted in The Senate.

I thank the many who have supported this initiative: the Shouter Baptists; Mayors David Miller, Barbara Hall and John Tory; Lieutenant Governors David Onley and Elizabeth Dowdeswell; and Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, and her recent adoption of M-36 in the Senate.

In considering the international connections of Emancipation Day, I had already been connected to the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS), which represents the 54 countries of the Commonwealth primarily in Africa and the Caribbean. I was able to secure their support for this proposal.

In 2020, I held the first international commemoration of Emancipation Day online due to covid-19, with representatives from Nigeria, Ghana, Britain, the Caribbean and across Canada.

So why seek the commemoration of August 1st as Emancipation Day?  Emancipation Day speaks directly to the reality that the land upon which Canada developed was created through the enslavement of Africans as well as First Nations people.  It speaks to the reality that the negative views and actions directed at people of African Descent can be traced back to this and that they have permeated successive generations of thought and action.  It allows for an affirmation of the ancestors. Knowing this helps us all have brave conversations about the issues that we face today and the location of the Black population as a group in this society as well as the inspiration to actively find and carry out those steps that will address anti-Black racism.




Majid Jowhari

Majid Jowhari


Richmond Hill, Ontario

The text of the motion

That the House recognize that: (a) the British Parliament abolished slavery in the British Empire as of August 1, 1834; (b) slavery existed in British North America prior to its abolition in 1834; (c) abolitionists and others who struggled against slavery, including those who arrived in Upper and Lower Canada by the Underground Railroad, have historically celebrated August 1 as Emancipation Day; (d) the Government of Canada announced on January 30, 2018, that it would officially recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent to highlight the important contributions that people of African descent have made to Canadian society, and to provide a platform for confronting anti-Black racism; and (e) the heritage of Canada’s people of African descent and the contributions they have made and continue to make to Canada; and that, in the opinion of the House, the government should designate August 1 of every year as “Emancipation Day” in Canada.