Emancipation Day and Canada's Record



August 2017 / Toronto - This August long weekend in Canada was a time for much discussion of what this civic holiday means for different parts of the country. In Ontario, there’s a mishmash of understanding of why we take off the first Monday in the month. For many it’s just a day off. For others (especially Torontonians and those in the Greater Toronto area) its Simcoe day and still for others, especially Ontario’s Black communities, its Emancipation Day, a commemoration of the end of the enslavement of Black people here in Canada* and throughout the Americas (1834).

In 2008, the McGuinty-led provincial Liberal Government designated the first Monday in August as Emancipation Day. Few people remember this. Much education still needs to be done across all communities to increase awareness of this piece of Ontario history. Known as Simcoe Day in Toronto, an interesting link is that John Graves Simcoe (who is celebrated as mentioned above on this holiday) was one of the early advocates for the abolition of slavery here in Canada (Upper Canada) and the rest of the Americas.  

This piece of history is a good segue into a discussion of what OCASI - Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants and its allied organizations including Colour of Poverty/Colour of Change (COPC), the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic (CSALC) and the South Asian Legal Clinic Ontario (SALCO) will be doing over the next week or so. We are heading to Geneva to appear before the United Nations CERD Committee on Canada’s compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).  

We have submitted a joint shadow report to the UN CERD Committee outlining our concerns and making recommendations for adoption by the federal government. The report is framed by the legacy of colonialism and impact on First Peoples, anti-Black and anti-people of colour racism with an intersectional bow to gender and gender identity, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, (im)migration status and socio-economic location. Specifically the shadow report calls for the establishment of a national action plan on anti-racism for Canada; the collection and reporting out of race and other demographic based data across all Departments, Agencies, Boards, etc of government. In addition we ask the United Nations CERD Committee to adopt an intersectional approach to examining the impact of racial discrimination as experienced by different communities (this is where the disaggregated data collection will be important) with a particular focus on Indigenous women and women of African descent who are disproportionately impacted by State policies and practices in child(ren) protection services and the criminal justice/prison industrial complex.

OCASI will focus on the plight of migrant workers – from the lack of access to services to the absence of a pathway to permanent residence for all but those who are deemed to be professionals. Our allied organizations will speak to issues of indefinite detention, family reunification, employment equity and as mentioned above the importance of collecting disaggregated data. Other NGOs from Canada will speak to the specific experiences of African Canadians, Indigenous Peoples and issues of gender, race and economics.

We have been here before. We have drafted and submitted many shadow reports and have called on the Canadian government to live up to the commitments it makes through signing on to international treaties. For example coming out of the first international discussion on racism (Durban 2001) Canada returned with a commitment to develop an antiracism action plan and to report out on its progress. Nothing was done and the plan was shelved without any discussion by the previous federal Conservative government.

We expect constructive change this time around. My colleagues who attended the NGO (non-governmental organizations) meeting with the government leads (Department of Canadian Heritage) on this issue came back cautiously optimistic, all talking about a change in tone and substance in how this current Liberal government is approaching the review. Let us hope that this signals a renewed commitment for Canada to tackle the intractable issues of racism and its harmful effects on racialized communities in our country.

In Solidarity…


* The importation of enslaved Africans into Lower Canada was banned in the 1790s although slavery itself, and often cross-border sales of enslaved Africans from Upper Canada continued.