Black advocates hope B.C.'s proclamation of Emancipation Day sparks change

·2 min read
Thousands protesting systemic racism march along Thurlow Street in Vancouver  in 2020. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)
Thousands protesting systemic racism march along Thurlow Street in Vancouver in 2020. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)

From this year forward, Aug. 1 will be known as Emancipation Day in B.C., marking the day slavery was abolished across Canada in 1834.

The proclamation was made Thursday by the B.C. government.

"Although the [Black] community has been here for more than 150 years, the experience of Black British Columbians continues to be marginalized," said Rachna Singh, parliamentary secretary for anti-racism initiatives.

"But this is a province that has been shaped by the contributions of Black Canadians throughout our history."

She said Emancipation Day will highlight the achievements of Black British Columbians.

On March 24, MPs in the House of Commons voted unanimously to designate Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day.

More than 800 Black people first came to B.C. — which was then the colony of Vancouver Island — between 1858 and 1860, fleeing racial animosity in California.

Now, more than 43,000 Black people live in B.C., according to the 2016 census.

Doug Kerr/CBC
Doug Kerr/CBC

Singh says Emancipation Day will also highlight the inequities B.C.'s Black citizens have experienced, including racist policies that prevented them from owning property and voting. And, she says, it's clear that the Black community continues to face barriers and racism.

"Too many Black British Columbians are struggling to get ahead because of the systemic racism that continues to bind them," said Singh.

'Step toward reconciliation'

Kamika Williams, chairperson of the Anti-Racism Coalition of Vancouver, says the proclamation of Emancipation Day is a significant moment for Black history and civil rights in B.C.

"It's important to teach the truth so we understand our history and that we acknowledge the systemic racism of our past and present," she said. "This is an important step toward reconciliation."

Nadia Jannif/CBC
Nadia Jannif/CBC

Ismaël Traoré, UBC director of faculty equity, says Emancipation Day also serves as an acknowledgment of Canada's participation in slavery.

And while the emancipation act may have ended slavery in Canada, he says it did not mark the end of racism.

"And so I ... am left to wonder, what will be different this time?" asked Traoré.

"Will the observance of this day in B.C. come with meaningful, systemic, anti-racism, transformative changes? Or will this be a continuation of, at best, incrementalism?"

Singh agreed that a proclamation alone is not enough and said her government will continue to work toward dismantling systemic racism..

Her team is working to draft anti-racism legislation, and they intend to introduce B.C.'s first Anti-Racism Act.

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