The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend about race relations in the US and the call for reparations for slavery and its ongoing economic impacts. During that conversation, my friend asked, “Did we ever have slavery in Canada?” I replied, “Um, I think so… yeah, I’m pretty sure we did. Hmm… we should Google that.”
The very fact that neither of us could say with certainty whether Canada participated in the transatlantic slave trade is a problem. We both knew about slavery in the US and when it came to an end… but about our own history in Canada, we were ignorant.
In my experience, ignorance provides fertile ground for prejudice and oppression to flourish.
Just one example of how this can happen…
The Pride celebrations we hold today across North America initially began as a commemoration of the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969. The patrons of the Stonewall Inn, who fought back against repeated police harassment, were largely Black and Latinx trans women. The contemporary Pride movement owes them a tremendous debt for the courage they unleashed, and the movement they began.
When I first “came out”, I learned all about the Stonewall riots… how lesbians and gay men fought back against police harassment and sparked a new era of “Gay Pride”. I rarely heard it mentioned that most of those who stood up to the police were trans… and I never learned that they were mostly people of colour. And I know that my “education” on these matters was fairly typical.
Today, in many Pride celebrations across North America, trans people and people of colour are often sidelined or ignored altogether in the planning, decision-making, and events that take place. This is what happens when we forget where we have come from. The very folx who birthed a movement, now have to fight for a seat at the movement’s table. That is so wrong, on so many levels.
As a white person seeking to practice anti-racism and dismantle white supremacy, it is crucial that I understand how deep these roots are in my country and in myself. I cannot change what I do not understand. And worse, I will almost certainly perpetuate the very oppression I am seeking to eliminate. I am embarrassed that, until this year, I did not know that August 1st is Emancipation Day in Canada. From now on, this is a day I will remember, celebrate, and talk about with my family, my friends, and my congregation. Thank you to those in our church who are lifting up this commemoration and teaching us about our history. You are helping us to imagine and create a better future
The Very Rev’d. Jordan Cantwell, immediate past Moderator of The United Church of Canada, is Minister for Worship, Children and Pastoral Care at St. Martin’s United Church, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.