Arts·Point of View

What does freedom mean to Canada? Celebrate Black artists in CBC's FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2020

Emancipation Day marks the abolishment of slavery throughout the British Empire — and all Canadians should know about it.

Emancipation Day marks the abolishment of slavery throughout the British Empire

Ngozi Paul hosting CBC's FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2020. (CBC Arts)

On August 1, CBC Arts — in association with Emancipation Arts — will be streaming FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2020, a festival of arts and activism led by young people to mark Emancipation Day and to celebrate freedom, on CBC Gem and YouTube.

But what is Emancipation Day?

Emancipation Day commemorates the abolishment of slavery throughout the British Empire on August 1, 1834. If you haven't heard of it, you are not alone! I myself only learned of it just a few years ago. Yes, me — Black as I am, woke as I was (that is, before "woke" was a thing). As the daughter of Pan-Africanists and founder of Emancipation Arts, you might think that I would have heard of a generation-spanning celebration called Emancipation Day. I wrote a play called The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely, for goodness sake; "emancipation" is kind of my thing. But I didn't hear about Emancipation Day until 2017, the year we started FreeUp!

"This is crazy," I thought. "How could I not already know what this is?"

I started Googling, and I found that Emancipation Day has simply not been recognized in popular culture. It certainly is not known the way Caribana is, even though Caribana happens in part because of the proximate cause for Emancipation Day: the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Immediately, my colleagues at Emancipation Arts and I committed to recognizing and celebrating Emancipation Day every year — and FreeUp! was born. For our debut event, we partnered with UforChange to put on an incredible evening of creative expression. A youth organization that provides young artists with the necessary tools and skills to realize their creative aspirations, UforChange was the perfect partner to involve emerging artists in the celebration. We started with good vibes provided by DJ L'Oqenz, with space provided by The Theatre Centre, and with the creativity and curation of young people, led by FreeUp! artistic director Khadijah Salawu.

Mackenta performing as part of 'FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2020'. (CBC Arts)

"It's a gift and a privilege to be a part of FreeUp!," says Khadijah. "It's a day where we commemorate what our ancestors have done for our freedom and what individuals are doing today to maintain our freedom, and it reminds us that we can support this through celebration, creative expression, and personal development. We are reminded of our agency to define what freedom means to us on our terms so we can build a better future for ourselves and our community."

To me, FreeUp! has always been about creating space and a platform to acknowledge our heritage and legacy. By exploring what freedom means, by making an annual practice of expressing these meanings together, we seek to cultivate real liberty through the arts — and through the kind of deeper understanding that the arts can afford us.

Tune in this Saturday, August 1st on CBC Gem for a CBC Arts special celebrating Black Canadian artists. 0:28

Since the beginning, FreeUp! has recognized a member of the community with our Freedom Fighter award. At our inaugural event, we honoured Rosemary Sadlier O.Ont, who spearheaded the mission for Emancipation Day to be recognized in both Ontario and Canada. Without Rosemary, we wouldn't be here. Her work exposed me to the rich and varied culture of Black Canadians. (This year, the award — now named the Rosemary Sadlier Award — will be given to "Canada's queen of R&B/soul" Jully Black.)

Under Sadlier's leadership, The Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) was able to celebrate its 30th anniversary with the passage of Bill 111, the Emancipation Day Act, 2008, which recognized Emancipation Day in Ontario...and only Ontario, despite Sadlier's efforts at the national level.

Chivengi performing as part of 'FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2020'. (CBC Arts)

Recognizing Emancipation Day is one way that Canada can acknowledge — both formally and informally — the legacy of Black and Indigenous Canadians, honouring their inextricable role in the formation of this country and its ongoing achievements. This is why I asked my big sister Annamie Paul for help launching a parliamentary petition, one that calls upon the Government of Canada to finally proclaim August 1st as Emancipation Day throughout all her jurisdictions. This petition to nationally recognize the day was recently submitted to the House of Commons and, if you are a Canadian citizen or resident, you can sign it until August 22, 2020 at 10:58am EST. (I personally think it should be a full-on holiday, but, one step at a time.)

Ontario took the lead by recognizing Emancipation Day in 2008, and it is high time we recognize it nationally. The International Decade for People of African Descent offers the perfect opportunity to permanently acknowledge the legacy of slavery and the achievements of many generations of Canadians descended from formerly enslaved peoples and persons.

Jully Black on what freedom means to her in an excerpt from 'FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2020'. Stream the full special celebrating Black Canadian artists on CBC Gem starting Saturday August 1st at 1pm ET. 0:32

In 2020, oft-marginalized voices are being heard in new ways. It is a time to address our common challenges and struggles — which is why this is the year to recognize Emancipation Day and to free up.

Unprecedented times give us a chance to explore what we value as a nation in Canada. What do our celebrations look like? What is worth celebrating?

Let us celebrate Emancipation Day, yes, let us commemorate it perennially as the blossoming of humanity that it represents — and let us remember our primary freedoms too, freedoms that cannot be given by any government nor be taken by any man, freedoms higher altogether and just as worthy of celebration. To not merely preserve and protect, but to actively cultivate our expressions of these primary freedoms of humanity — this perhaps more than any social clash is worthy of our common attention today. Freedom of expression is fundamental and underpins so many other freedoms, so let us celebrate it accordingly and create beauties that celebrate freedom itself. This is what FreeUp! is all about.

David Delisca and Andrew Forde performing as part of 'FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2020'. (CBC Arts)

Let us celebrate together. Let us listen to new generations of voices and work with them to help us define a brighter future, just as we still listen carefully to the voices of generations past.

I believe that this is a great invigorating spark of a year, 2020, and my continual aim for the annual FreeUp! to serve as one of those steady torches, bridging generations and serving to help light our common paths of freedom. It is time for all Canadians to know of Emancipation Day, to be invited to celebrate it with those of us who already do.

Zoë Edwards on what freedom means to her in an excerpt from 'FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2020'. Stream the full special celebrating Black Canadian artists on CBC Gem starting Saturday August 1st at 1pm ET. 0:12

Protect it, proclaim it, explore it, create it — whatever it is you do with it, ask yourself:

What does freedom mean to you?

Tune in to FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2020 this Saturday, August 1 at 1pm ET on CBC Gem and YouTube.

About the Author

Ngozi Paul is an award-winning stage and screen actress, writer, director, and producer. Born and raised in Toronto to Pan-African parents from the Caribbean islands, her upbringing created the foundation for her work as a social and cultural innovator. With academic roots in the prestigious Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre, Ngozi began her acting career on stage at the Stratford Festival of Canada. Following the groundbreaking and successful run of the theatre production 'da Kink in My Hair, Ngozi co-created, executive produced, and starred in the television series of the same name. Most recently, she wrote and starred in the play The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely, which was nominated for six Dora Awards and won Outstanding New Play, and appeared in the Netflix miniseries Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now