Nearly two centuries after the abolition of slavery in what is now Canada, those gathered to observe the milestone say much work remains to understand and break down barriers still reinforced by racism.
On Sunday, for the first time in the country’s history, Emancipation Day was officially recognized.
Liberal and NDP MLAs hosted events to acknowledge the 187th anniversary.
NDP MLA Jamie Moses held a virtual event Sunday afternoon. He was one of the first three Black MLAs elected in Manitoba in 2019, alongside fellow NDP MLA Uzoma Asagwara and PC MLA Audrey Gordon.
On May 27, Moses introduced a bill in the Manitoba legislature to recognize the Aug. 1 holiday in Manitoba. It has not yet passed, but the federal government unanimously passed a bill on March 24 acknowledging Emancipation Day countrywide.
Black and Indigenous speakers also gathered at St. Norbert Arts Centre Sunday morning for an event hosted by Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard.
Indigenous elder Mike Pierre opened with a teaching about the reclamation of identity and culture and connection.
"I’m here for the love of the human family," he said, moments before launching into a song in a rich tenor over the heartbeat of his hand drum.
Jim Bear, former chief of Brokenhead First Nation, also took to the podium. He reminded the room that Indigenous peoples had long-established and complex governments, social systems and cultures before European contact, and this was the context in which Pope Alexander VI told Spain and Portugal they had the right to colonize, convert and enslave the Indigenous people of the Americas.
"Slavery also happened to us," he said. "Unfortunately, it still continues today, because even though we’re not enslaved as in the past, restrictions and systemically racist policies still exist, still keep us."
For Bear, Emancipation Day was a chance to chip away at the mental blocks that serve to reinforce racism. It was a time to work against the "brainwashing" of Indigenous people, through things such as residential schools and stereotypical portrayals in media, but also to fight ignorance of Indigenous worldview.
"We already had our own ways. We had lifelong learning, and we had mentorship. Now, and even back then, we were already doctors and nurses. We were scientists and astronomers. But we did not have the graduation gown," he said.
Laurelle Harris, a Winnipeg lawyer who specializes in anti-racism, equity and inclusion, gave an impassioned speech on the history of slavery in Canada and the exclusion of Black history in Canadian education.
"Black history is key in history and yet remains mostly absent from our classes," she said.
"We learned the mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but we do not learn the teachings of Indigenous peoples. We do not learn the mythologies of African cultures. In my school, we learned no Black history."
Harris illuminated the role of Canada, or what is now Canada, in bolstering and perpetuating the slave trade.
The country traded for rum and sugar from slave-run plantations in the Caribbean and supplied salt cod to feed enslaved people. Quebec City, Montreal and Halifax were "network ports" that frequently received ships of enslaved Black men and women — and some of those ships were even built in Canada. Militias in Canada formed to track enslaved people who had run away because, said Harris, "it was a crime to steal himself."
She drew attention to the continued honouring of historical figures who enslaved Black and Indigenous people, such as James McGill, founder of Montreal’s prestigious McGill University, who listed six Black people in his property holdings.
"The importance of Emancipation Day really can’t be underestimated," she said. "We really can’t go forward unless we understand where we came from."
The day, by its nature, was sombre, but many also expressed joy at the support the day has gotten. It was a day to look back, to uncover truths and to move forward in a more accurate and complete understanding of history, and also the present.
"It’s amazing," said Uche Nwankwo, a University of Winnipeg professor and Liberal candidate who emigrated to Canada from Nigeria. "It brings us together. We feel that energy, that positive energy. We can learn from each other and grow with each other."
Cody Sellar is the reporter/photographer for The Times. He is a lifelong Winnipegger. He is a journalist, writer, sleuth, sloth, reader of books and lover of terse biographies.