Recognizing Emancipation Day


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This article was published 10/08/2021 (661 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This is the first year, across Canada, that we recognized Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day.

On Aug. 1, 1834, slavery was abolished in the British Empire. As there were certain limits (people over six years of age were designated as apprentices and required to work 40 hours a week), full emancipation was not achieved until four years later on Aug. 1, 1838.

Historian Marcel Trudel estimated there were about 4,200 enslaved people in Canada between 1671 and 1831, and that initially two-thirds were Indigenous and one-third of African descent. Toward the end of this period, with an increased number of people coming to Canada with slaves, those of African descent outnumbered those who were Indigenous. It is an all too often forgotten or unmentioned part of our history.

In River Heights, we have many residents of Indigenous or of African descent. Emancipation Day has a special meaning for them. It is also an important opportunity for all Canadians to become more aware of this part of our history. Emancipation of slaves meant freedom to all, freedom from enslavement for those who were slaves and enhanced dignity and respect for everyone.  

In speaking in the legislature about Emancipation Day, I emphasized the importance of valuing and learning from each other. I spoke of an African chief, Syataminda, who was the head of his village in what is now Zambia, during the 1918-19 Spanish influenza pandemic. He saved his village during that pandemic when those around them were decimated by illness. He reduced transmission by mandating that everyone in the village had to leave their homes at sunrise and not return until sunset.

For some reason, Syataminda knew or suspected what we know today — that viruses such as the influenza and coronaviruses are much less transmissible outdoors compared to indoors. He also used a traditional medicine from the sap of the baobab tree. While it can be easy to dismiss traditional medicines, we now realize a remarkable number of our present remedies originated in plants that were historically used for preventing or treating ailments.

This year, I hosted an Emancipation Day event which included members of Manitoba’s Black and Indigenous communities. It was held at the St. Norbert Arts Centre, an organization which has close connections to the Black community, in part because of the role of musician and community activist Gerry Atwell. SNAC has also been inclusive and supportive of the Indigenous community. 

The event was organized to bring people together and to enable a discussion of the past, the present and our hopes for the future. Speakers included Alexa Joy and Laurelle Harris who have both been active in efforts to address racism and discrimination.

Former Brokenhead First Nation chief, Jim Bear, talked of the impact of enslavement on Indigenous people in Canada. Judy Williams, whose family came from Trinidad and Tobago, talked of her great-grandmother who was enslaved, and the lasting impact it had on her family. Peter Koroma, originally from Sierra Leone, and Uche Nwankwo, originally from Nigeria, spoke of the impact of slavery on countries in Africa.

Efforts like this Emancipation Day event are important to enable us to have a shared understanding of our past and to help us to better work together today.

Hopefully the recognition of Emancipation Day and the improved understanding it brings will be a step forward in this effort.

Jon Gerrard

Jon Gerrard
River Heights constituency report

Jon Gerrard is Liberal MLA for River Heights.

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