74,825 days. 205 years. That is how long the trans-Atlantic slavery existed in Canada (and the former French and British colonies).
I have been thinking about that number as I remember and mark Emancipation Day in 2020. My first thought was, “yes, yet that’s a long time ago, surely there have been more days without slavery than with.” Unfortunately, no there has not. Canada won’t reach that milestone until the year 2040 – as in another 20 years from now.
74, 825 days.
As I think about what Emancipation Day means I see in the mirror my own whiteness and the system of whiteness that has literally whitewashed the colonial history of this country to the point where people don’t really believe you when you say “but there was slavery here too!”
And then we (I’m speaking about white people like myself) tend to get all defensive and state things like, “but we got rid of slavery.” That has always sounded like such a strange and vitriolic statement to me. “We did away with slavery” as if somehow changing laws and deeming certain types of economic transactions illegal would serve as confession and repentance. As if somehow doing away with the evil ‘we’ created atones for the sin.
That was how long thoughts and ideas like those of J.C. Prichard, W. Winwood Reade, Frederick Farrar, Robert Knox and countless others in schools, universities, public offices, and pulpits had to soak into popular consciousness. Thatwas how long, what we now label as white supremacist, had to take root in generation after generation. Long after Emancipation Day, the evil of racism permeated and still permeates our social systems and institutions. The fact that you can still hear people talking about someone as being able to “pass-for-white” means we haven’t ‘progressed’ that much since the various Racial Integrity Acts in 1924. Yes, it is true it wasn’t as overt in Canada as in other countries, especially the United States of America, yet the racism that fuelled the education, creation, justification, and legitimization of slavery didn’t disappear with a royal declaration. It just changed.
The events that have filled news feeds, created an avalanche of social memes, demonstrations, and yes, even riots, are the latest manifestation of frustration, anger, sadness, and more anger about how the legacy of those 74,825 days continues to shape the ideology, philosophy, and theology of ‘good’ Canadians. It has to stop. Just ask any Black, Indigenous, Person of Colour…it has to stop. The twisting of systems and institutions and the legitimization of racism has to stop. People were and are dying because society, particularly white society, cannot accept that we have been influenced by racism to the point where we don’t even recognize it as racism. I mean even Jesus became a blond haired, fair skinned, blue eyed white boy. Ever see a black angel?
I mark Emancipation Day because to do anything less would be to break covenant with those who have gone before me. People who suffered untold horrors because of the white supremist social construction of race. People who were told God didn’t really love them, but maybe one day, could like them. People who were packed into ships according to the maximum amount of space required to ensure the minimal amount of lost ‘product’ as they sailed from Africa to Europe and the Americas. I mark Emancipation Day because I will not abandon the hope that is deeply invested in the spirituals that were sung on plantations, caged wagons, and prison cells across the world.
That hope can be glimpsed, even today. I find it in the words of John Lewis and his encouragement to find a way out and a way in. To realise the power each of us possess. To, “answer the highest calling of [our] heart and stand up for what [we] truly believe.” In other words when we get into ‘good trouble.” I see it when the achievements of BIPOC people are acknowledged, not because they did “good for their people”, but because the achievement is worthy of acknowledgement. I see it when Viola Desmond’s picture graces our $10 bill. I see it when Celai West refuses to ‘tame’ her hair. I see it in colleagues who continue to name the reverberating echo of the transatlantic slave trade in our systems and institutions. I see it when movements like Black Lives Matter take up the mantle of leadership and speak truth to power. I see it when institutions, businesses, churches, and people pledge to challenge the evil and legacy of racism by being anti-racist to the best of their abilities, to learn, to grow, to change.
It took us a long time to get here. There is much ministry left to be done. Yet we lose sight of an aspect of our purpose if we forget the reason we’re doing it in the first place. August 1, 1834 is one of the reasons. The fact the day needed to happen in the first place is one of the 74,825 reasons.
Rev. Dr. Bob K. Fillier is the minister of Trinity United Church in Prince George, British Columbia