HALIFAX — Politicians and dignitaries gathered in Halifax on Monday to commemorate Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the British Parliament's decision to abolish slavery across its empire in 1834.
By some estimates, more than 15 million African women, men and children were victims of the transatlantic slave trade. And by 1750, there were about 400 enslaved Black people among the nearly 3,000 residents of Halifax. The Slavery Abolition Act, which took effect on Aug. 1, 1834, freed about 800,000 enslaved people of African descent throughout the British colonies.
The federal government designated Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day in March 2021, and the Nova Scotia government did the same a month later.
Pat Dunn, Nova Scotia's minister responsible for African Nova Scotian affairs, said it has to be acknowledged that many people of African descent were enslaved in Nova Scotia and in other parts of Canada.
"This deeply rooted reality continues to negatively impact generations of people today in the form of anti-Black racism," Dunn told the gathering at the Halifax Convention Centre.
"This is absolutely unacceptable. We, as a government, are committed to taking the steps needed to make positive changes."
Dwayne Provo, Nova Scotia's associate deputy minister of African Nova Scotian affairs, said people of African descent have lived in Nova Scotia for more than 400 years.
"All Nova Scotians must acknowledge that the institution of slavery existed here in our province and our country," he said. "It is our shared responsibility to work together to address anti-Black racism so that all Nova Scotians can thrive."
Nova Scotia's lieutenant-governor, Arthur J. LeBlanc, said Emancipation Day is a reminder of the lasting pain caused by slavery, but it also provides an opportunity to promote diversity and inclusion.
"In order for diversity and inclusion to thrive in our communities, we must first acknowledge our history," LeBlanc said.
"Today, we reflect on the impact of racism and injustice, not only on the enslaved people of African descent, but also on their descendants. There is ongoing work that must be done to fully eliminate discrimination and create lasting equality for us all."
Thousands of people from Africa were forcefully taken to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, as well as to Upper Canada and Lower Canada, which now comprise Ontario and Quebec.
In P.E.I., Premier Dennis King issued a statement Monday noting his government introduced a law earlier this year to recognize Emancipation Day.
"It is important to acknowledge that slavery was present in Atlantic Canada, including P.E.I.," he said, calling attention to the fact that a Charlottetown neighbourhood known as "The Bog" was settled by Black enslaved people in the early 19th century.
"Emancipation Day celebrates the strength and perseverance of Black communities in Canada. It is a day for Islanders to reflect and educate themselves while they learn to work against anti-Black racism and discrimination."
Meanwhile, some Black leaders and scholars have renewed calls for Ottawa to offer a formal apology for the impact of slavery. Author Elise Harding-Davis said the federal government's recognition of Emancipation Day was a step forward, but it doesn't erase the fact that slavery has harmed generations of Black people.
"An apology … would also be an amelioration of the harsh treatment Black people have received and the validation that we have honestly contributed not only to this country, but to the making of this country," Harding-Davis said in a recent interview.
Afua Cooper, a history professor at Dalhousie University, said she first asked for an apology from Ottawa in 2007. Even though Canada did not become a country until 1867, more than three decades after slavery ended, the former collection of colonies constituted the building blocks of the new nation, she said.
At the event on Monday, the founder of the South End Environmental Injustice Society, Louise Delisle, said Canadians should seek inspiration from those who survived slavery.
"The enslavement of our ancestors was demoralizing, dehumanizing and brutal," she said. "From the moment they were stolen from their homes in Africa, they remained courageous, resolute and resilient in their fight, which made it possible for us to be here today.
"We must continue to pass down and speak of their stories and celebrate their strength, their strong spirits."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2022.
— With files from Sarah Smellie in St. John's.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press