More than a year after Canada proclaimed August 1 as Emancipation Day, black leaders and scholars are renewing their calls for Ottawa to formally apologize for the country’s history of slavery and its intergenerational harm.
Author Elise Harding-Davis said Sunday that the federal government’s vote last March to recognize Emancipation Day shows Canadian leaders know the country’s history of slavery has hurt black people for generations.
Ignoring years of calls for a proper apology is “shameful,” he said.
“An apology would mean acknowledgment of the fact that we were enslaved in this country,” Harding-Davis said in an interview. “It would also be an improvement on the harsh treatment black people have received and validation that we have honestly contributed not only to this country, but to the creation of this country.”
Emancipation Day recognizes the day in 1834 that the Slavery Abolition Act came into force, ending slavery in most of the British colonies, including Canada, and freeing more than 800,000 people. Thousands of slaves from Africa were taken against their will to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland, as well as Lower Canada and Upper Canada in what is now Ontario.
In the colony of New France, which became British territory in the 1760s, most slaves were indigenous, historians say.
The Abolition of Slavery Act freed all enslaved people, including indigenous people, Harding-Davis said, adding, “A determination to free black people helped free all people, and that’s huge.”
She said she doesn’t feel most Canadians are aware of the country’s history of slavery.
“It’s just been pushed to the side and brushed under the rug as much as possible,” he said. “This anti-racism movement that has happened… in the last 10 years, but more focused since the death of George Floyd in the United States, has only highlighted that there is little awareness that there is something wrong with the treatment of blacks in Canada.
Dalhousie University history professor Afua Cooper said Sunday that she first asked Ottawa in 2007 to apologize for slavery and its harms. The lead researcher for the Black People’s History of Canada project noted that, meanwhile, other groups have received apologies for historical harm.
“There can be no other explanation except that this is a specific form of racism against black people,” Cooper said in an interview. “Black people are not seen as full citizens and it’s the federal government’s way of saying, ‘Too bad.'”
Some will argue that an apology is not warranted, he said, since Canada was formed in 1867, more than three decades after slavery ended. But Cooper said that reasoning doesn’t hold water, adding that the country formed in 1867 was built from what it was in previous years.
“Well, how about apologizing to the black community for things that happened after 1867?” he asked her, pointing to examples including segregation and a 1911 government proposal that sought to ban black immigrants from entering the country.
The last segregated school in Canada, in Lincolnville, NS, did not close until 1983.
Harding-Davis doesn’t buy that argument either. Black people have been subject to marginalization due to the laws and practices that allowed and stemmed from slavery, she said.
“The mindset, the beliefs have been left in place,” he said. “We continue to face long-standing prejudice, discrimination and disparities, and the government has really done little or nothing to change that.”
Nova Scotia Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard said Sunday that it is “absolutely” time for a federal apology for the country’s practice of enslaving black people and its lasting harm, but said an apology is empty without action.
The question he asks Canada after last year’s recognition of Emancipation Day is: “What’s next?”
“There is such a big need for education, there is such a big need for us to create more awareness, but there is also a need for us to engage in action,” he said in an interview.
“We really need more engagement from everyone to move forward and walk this path in a more positive way. We need allies that are more impactful, more engaged as they go, and not just making alliances.”
The federal Department of Housing, Diversity and Inclusion did not immediately provide comment upon request.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 31, 2022.