N.S. senator hopes recognition of Emancipation Day will lead to reconciliation, reparations

·3 min read
Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard has been pushing for years for the Canadian government to mark Emancipation Day each Aug. 1. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard has been pushing for years for the Canadian government to mark Emancipation Day each Aug. 1. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Nova Scotia Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard says the recognition of Emancipation Day across Canada acknowledges the country's roots in anti-Black racism, which is a step toward reconciliation.

"It's important for us to acknowledge how slavery is really embedded in the current anti-Black racism that we're experiencing [and] current conditions of systemic racism that we're trying to address," Thomas Bernard told CBC's Mainstreet on Thursday.

"I hope that it sort of creates an anchor from which to move forward with other forms of reparations as well."

On Wednesday, MPs in the House of Commons voted unanimously to designate Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day across Canada.

The date marks the anniversary of when Britain's Parliament abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1834. The Slavery Abolition Act came into effect, freeing about 800,000 enslaved people in most British colonies, including Canada.

Thomas Bernard has been pushing for years for the Canadian government to mark Emancipation Day each Aug. 1. Previously, it had only been officially recognized in Ontario and Vancouver.

'Anti-Black racism wasn't abolished'

Thomas Bernard said despite slavery being abolished nearly 187 years ago, anti-Black racism still remains, as Black people continue to face discrimination and violence.

"Anti-Black racism wasn't abolished. Anti-Black racism and the treatment of people of African descent — the freedom, the true freedom — really did not happen," she said.

Thomas Bernard said by recognizing Emancipation Day, it's an acceptance that slavery existed in Canada.

"Most of our history books [don't] tell that history. Our history books, our history lessons, the lessons that we're teaching our children is that we had the Underground Railroad — full stop," she said.

The Underground Railroad was a secret network of people who helped between 30,000-40,000 African Americans escape slavery, some of whom found sanctuary in Canada.

"Yes, we had the Underground Railroad and yes, that was significant. But we also had slavery and not acknowledging that is sending a message that your true, full history doesn't really matter."

Thomas Bernard said she hopes this recognition will encourage educators to teach the history of slavery to create a better understanding of how it affected — and continues to affect — people of African descent.

"I hope that having Emancipation Day nationally recognized also signals and creates space for healing the multigenerational trauma not just of the history of slavery, but the history of the erasure of our full history."

Thomas Bernard said anti-Black racism continues to have harmful effects but recognizing Emancipation Day is a step in the right direction.

"Signalling Emancipation Day forces us to remember the past — the full past — but it also forces us to reflect on the present and to do better preparation for a future without systemic barriers."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

<cite>(CBC)</cite>
(CBC)

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