August 1 is known to those of us formerly enslaved and colonized by the British as Emancipation Day. In Ontario, where I sat down to write these words, August 1 is a civic holiday and it is called Simcoe Day. It is named after Maj-Gov. John Graves Simcoe the founder of York, (later Toronto) and the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada when it was still a British colony. Lord Simcoe is credited with having prohibited slavery in York and thus his history acts as a stand in for Emancipation Day in Toronto. The convergence between Simcoe Day and Emancipation Day is an interesting one in Canada for a number of reasons. Chief among those reasons is that because Simcoe issued his decree in York well before official British emancipation he can be mobilized to continue the quite resilient myth in Canada that there was no slavery here. Indeed, I will bargain to claim that many in Toronto, and Ontario and across Canada do not know that Simcoe Day or any of the other -re-named civic holidays celebrated on August 1 is actually the same day as Emancipation Day. Simcoe Day then is a convenient way to obscure Canada’s history as a part of the Atlantic slave trade which was central to Britain’s colonial project and the eventual founding of Canada as a nation. The political project of the founding of Canada is one that included the theft of the land and resources of Indigenous people, and the genocide and near genocide of them as well, along with slavery here for two hundred years. All across Canada Emancipation Day has been renamed and that renaming masked what the day should actually about.
Those who were enslaved always rebelled. The slaves were not freed because of moral or ethical benevolence on the part of white Britain. Slavery as a practice became untenable because the slaves made it so. They broke tools and machinery, they ran away, they committed suicide, and they rebelled and revolted against their masters, killing them even. It was the slaves refusal to bow to their subjugation, dehumanization and ultimately their loss of all self that led to the abolition of slavery. And of course, coalitions of freed former slaves and white abolitionists worked to bring slavery to an end too. I offer this capsule history to make a simple and important point. David Brion Davis (2006) in his book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World argues that all of the current methods of protests that we have, and use have their history in the struggle to abolish slavery. Davis writes of street protests, letter writing campaigns, testimonies for those affected and those transformed (former slaves and slave holders), appeals to religious and spiritual practices, morals and ethics, appealing to governmental policy and practice and of course making the case for changes in legislation and law and other practices as well. All those tools continue to useful today in our own protests for freedom. What Davis alerts us to them is how the history of Black/African enslavement continues to be a powerful force for shaping our world whether we know it or not.
Emancipation Day is not celebrated in the USA. The U.S. War of Independence (1776) saw it liberate itself as a British colony. Nonetheless the USA plays an important part in what I am going to suggest here. After the vicious murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis Minnesota protest and rioting broke out there and across the USA. The protest continue still. The Movement for Black Lives understands that emancipation is not freedom. Emancipation is the first road towards freedom. To make this claim is to not claim that Black people are still slaves but to rather it is to say something about what the quality of freedom might be. Black people still find themselves confined by the logics of slavery in our contemporary culture. In the list of tactics from Davis I deliberately left out rebellion. I left it out because once again Black people find themselves having to rebel in order for their desires and dreams to be given credence, for their humanity to be afforded dignity and respect, in other words for us to be free. I do not make this claim lightly, for what is often called rioting is actually a rebellion demanding freedom. Not freedom because we are in chains still but freedom to live lives like all the others can live. These rebellions are a fundamental part of Black history and one that is meant to activate an ethical consciousness in others.
In Canada, Emancipation Day should remind us of the work still needing to be accomplished. Indeed, the Movement for Black Lives here alerts us to the fact that all is not well. The murders of Black and Indigenous people across this country should be an impetus for us to summon our ethical core and formulate a new emancipatory project of the 21st century where the most marginalized among us can finally breathe like all the rest of us.
Rinaldo Walcott is Professor of Black Diaspora Cultural Studies in the Women sand Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto.