In March. the House of Commons voted to nationally recognize Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day, the day in 1834 when the Slavery Abolition Act abolished slavery across the British Empire.
While the day commemorates the abolishment of slavery, it is also meant as a day of reflection. Yes, Canada participated in the transatlantic slave trade, mired in systems of white supremacy, racism and oppression.
Those Canadians who are aware that slavery occurred here sometimes believe it was "not as cruel" as in the United States. But slavery is an attempt to strip people of their culture, their beliefs and practices; their basic humanity by any means necessary.
There is no such thing as a gentler, kinder slavery.
The history of the transatlantic slave trade is 400 years old, and Canada participated in 200 years of that. There is no after. Slavery is in the DNA of each and every one of us.
Once emancipated, Black people began a vigorous fight. Due to racial discrimination they were denied the right to serve in the military, sit on juries, eat in restaurants, stay in hotels and attend schools. Here. In Canada.
'I have learned that you have to know your past if you are to have a strong future.' - Yolanda Hood
That discrimination, that oppression has not dissipated into thin air. Black people continue to fight. Black students are more likely to be suspended from school than white students who commit the same offence; black students are punished more severely than white students for the same offences. Black people are pulled over by police at higher rates than white people, often for no other reason than being Black and fitting that description. Here. In Canada.
So when I arrived in Canada, during the beginning of former U.S. president Donald Trump's term, someone said to me, "You know you are safe here, right?" I had hoped that would be the case, but the descendants of enslaved Africans know to be mistrustful. It is in our DNA.
What would I feel here? Despite all of the education and all of the degrees, I knew very little about Canada. I knew what I had learned in school in the States. Escaped slaves headed north to Canada on the Underground Railroad, because north — and especially Canada — meant freedom.
Over the past three years, I have spent a bit of time educating myself, and being educated, on the ways of Canada. But, I have also spent time in self-reflection. I wait for this "safety" that my Canadian friend believes I will have here. I wait for fearlessness and belonging, for identity and connection. I have learned that you have to know your past if you are to have a strong future.
Here are some books that I have read and recommend that might help all of us with that.
The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, by Afua Cooper
Using archival research, Cooper presents the events that lead to the trial, torture and hanging of the enslaved woman, Angélique. The research provides an excellent overview of the history of slavery in what was called New France. But, on an emotional level, it captures the brutality of slavery as a practice. This is a very little known history of Canada that everyone should learn about.
Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada, by Natasha Henry
Like Cooper, Henry provides a thoroughly researched account of the history of Canadian slavery. Her emphasis is on how Black Canadians coped after the Slavery Abolition Act was in effect. Using archival research, Henry is able to capture the celebrations of Emancipation Day for more than 100 years in a number of Black communities across Canada. While showcasing moments of Black joy, like parades, weddings and barbecues, she also provides the messy aftereffects of slavery and racism. This title highlights the fact that despite emancipation from slavery, Black Canadians are not emancipated from anti-Black racism.
Burning Sugar, poems by Cicely Belle Blain
This volume of poetry is one of my favourites. I read it again and again. Blain has lived all over the world and now makes their home in Vancouver (where they founded Black Lives Matter Vancouver). In this book, Blain meditates on place, art and childhood, reckoning with the myriad ways that white supremacy, colonization and capitalism all bear down on us physically, mentally and emotionally. One of the most exquisite lines captures the entirety of the Black experience: "Your life's work is searching for Black joy while drowning in Black pain."
Black Writers Matter, edited by Whitney French
I recommend this book of creative non-fiction to anyone who wants to surf the literary landscape of Black writers. French's goal with this anthology was to share the work of seasoned writers, as well as up-and-coming writers. The authors have the uncanny ability to pull you in in one moment with strong, intimate voices, while taking your breath away in the next with the brutal honesty of their lived experiences. This book is also important because French was intentional about selecting writers from across Canada. Black writers in the Yukon, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick? Yes, please!
The Skin We're In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, by Desmond Cole
Sadly, this excellent book is a primer for many Canadians of the intense experiences of racism faced by Black Canadians. Cole highlights a full year of those incidents, calling particular attention to the laws, policies and other inherently racist practices that stack the tables against Black Canadians on a daily basis. This one can take some time to read as you may need frequent breaks from the constant and demoralizing injustices. While a difficult read, the knowledge gained is powerful.
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.