First Baptist Church was founded in 1826 in Toronto by 12 fugitives from slavery seeking freedom. They arrived on the Underground Railroad a few years shy of Aug. 1, 1834 — the day slavery was abolished across the British Empire, including in Canada.
It’s a day historian Rosemary Sadlier says Canadians still know very little about.
“There (are) people in this country who fail to recognize that Black people had been here since before Confederation,” said Sadlier, the former president of the Ontario Black History Society. “On the lands that we now call Canada, slavery began in 1628, the enslavement of Africans. It did not end until August 1st, 1834.”
The passing of the Slavery Abolition Act freed more than 800,000 people across the Caribbean, South Africa and Canada, initiating Emancipation Day Celebrations in Ontario in places like Windsor, St. Catharines, Collingwood, Woodstock, Amherstburg and Toronto.
“The people who were celebrating Emancipation Day were Black people who made themselves free and were in Canada, or newly arrived freedom seekers,” said Sadlier. “The early celebrations … were about just the immediate joyful expressions that were spiritual, that were cultural, that were included dance and prayer, that included speeches.
“Initially, it was about perhaps more identity building and celebration, but it also took on an element of advocacy for the end of slavery” — because slavery wasn’t over for everyone.
The U.S. would wait 30 more years before ending the practice, during which time tens of thousands fled to Canada to taste emancipation.
On their journey to freedom, many African Americans would stop and settle in Owen Sound, Ont. — the northernmost part of the Underground Railroad. The courage and experiences of these pioneers are commemorated in Harrison Park.
“Many of them came up the Bruce Trail and they ended up coming right here to the northern terminus, or the cairn,” said Jeffrey Gordon Smith, an organizer of the Owen Sound Emancipation Day Festival.
In Owen Sound, Emancipation Day has been celebrated for 160 years, the longest in North America. Smith, a descendant of formerly enslaved people who settled there, says it all started with a family picnic by freedom seeker Thomas Henry Miller.
“This is where they met every year in Harrison Park,” said Smith. “It was all about a gathering togetherness in celebration: ‘We are now free, we are now emancipated!'”
Today, Emancipation Day celebrations continue around the world with carnival festivities in the Caribbean and in Canada, all rooted in Aug. 1.
But despite its long history in Canada, only recently did the country formally recognize the day. In March 2021, the House of Commons voted unanimously to designate Aug. 1 Emancipation Day nationally.
A descendant of freedom seekers herself, Sadlier, who played an instrumental role in pushing forward the motion, says Emancipation Day is just as relevant to Canadians now as it was then.
“I think that is also a time not only of reflection, but also a time of planning for what other things we need to do to make things better for ourselves and for coming generations, for Black people and for all Canadians,” said Sadlier. “Because what makes things better for Black people ultimately makes things better for the entire society. “