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Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada by Natasha L. Henry (review)

From: Canadian Ethnic Studies
Volume 44, Number 2, 2012
pp. 160-162 | 10.1353/ces.2012.0002

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Natasha Henry’s Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada examines the evolution and meaning of Emancipation Day across Canada. Based on archival research, the author judiciously maps the celebration that began in the 19th century and is often resurrected in various cities across Canada in the 21st century. Henry convincingly demonstrates the multiple functions of the August 1st celebration as well as the protracted struggle over how to acknowledge such a significant historic event. Initially, Emancipation Day was organized and held to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Canada with St. Catherine’s being the site of the first recorded celebration in Ontario, held on August 20, 1835. For the newly manumitted, Emancipation Day provided an outlet to reflect upon the vast possibilities of freedom from enslavement. Over time, the event would evolve to mean much more. Henry demonstrates throughout the book how “Emancipation Day provided the ideal public stage for native-born and immigrant Black Canadians to express overwhelming gratitude for liberty, embrace their citizenship, and to chart the course for the future” (146).

The format of the Emancipation Day celebration, at least in its early development, reflected the religious and cultural values of the African Canadian community. The day began with a church service organized around the theme of “giving thanks to God from deliverance from bondage” (28). Ministers taught about the atrocities of slavery as well how to envision a new future, while the hymns sung reflected the spirit of thanksgiving. Parades were an integral aspect of the August 1st festivities and included the use of specific emblems, which served as reminders of how far Blacks had come. As a reflection of Black people’s history of service to the British and later to the Canadian military, military marching bands led the procession. Another component of the Emancipation Celebration was annual feasts, luncheons, picnics and formal dinners. Henry asserts that the act of eating together, a liberty they did not have under slavery, served a symbolic purpose for the newly manumitted. Toasts, resolutions, and speeches were also features of the Emancipation Day celebrations. Beyond the festivity of the parades, Henry maintains that the various activities not only reinforced a sense of the unity, but also serve as evidence of “Black Canadians helping one another to strengthen their community” (29).

While the core purpose of Emancipation Day was recognized by the African-Canadian community, how to celebrate the day was a contested issue for some members. Reverend Jones from Hamilton, for example, felt that August 1st should be spent quietly focusing on the major issues affecting the Black community, such as the “establishment and support of community institutions, [and] the promotion of morals and values… all of which should take precedence over partying” (119). Others insisted that there was no need to celebrate the abolition of slavery as the “passing of the legislation was the ‘right, just, and moral thing to do’” (204). Still, there were moments when Emancipation Day was used as an act of resistance. In 1874, Chatham cancelled most of the traditional festivities, opting instead to hold a political rally to protest discrimination against Blacks.

Emancipation Day was also an interracial affair, with whites participating not only as spectators, but also as speakers. When whites, often politicians, spoke, they ignored any discussion of anti-Black racism, choosing instead to emphasize Black Canadian achievement, implying, according to Henry, “that discrimination was not an impediment” (86). In addition to speaking at the event, white politicians from the various levels of government often sent greetings as was the case with the Honourable Lester B. Pearson, leader of the Liberal Party in 1954. Pearson sent well wishes to the Toronto Emancipation Committee. The 1912 Emancipation Day Celebration in Hamilton included the 37th Haldim and Rifles Band comprised primarily of Six Nations volunteer militiamen who supplied the music.

How Henry delineated the transnational component of the holiday is especially noteworthy. She highlighted the connections between the plight of Blacks in Canada and the United States while being attentive to the specificity of what blackness means in the Canadian context. In addition to including well-known speakers, such as Adam Clayton Powell and Martin Luther King who attended Windsor’s celebration...

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