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Have you ever heard of Emancipation Day?


Photo by Lucian Osorio licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Besides Christmas and Easter, name another holiday that is celebrated in the Caribbean, parts of the United States and in Ontario, Canada? Halloween? Nope. Family Day? Guess again. When you get to Emancipation Day, you can give yourself a pat on the back because you're right!

What is it?

painting of John Graves Simcoe on the left and Abraham Lincoln on the right

Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe (left) ended most slavery in Upper Canada (now Ontario). American President Abraham Lincoln (right) ended slavery in the United States.

Emancipation Day is when the government declared that it would be against the law to make the people or the descendants (the children, grand children and great-grand children) of the people that were taken from Africa continue to work as slaves. In Ontario and many of the islands in the Caribbean, the holiday marks the end of slavery for people who were taken from Africa to places that were part of the British Empire. In the United States, the celebration marks president Abraham Lincoln's announcement of the end of slavery and the end of the Civil War.

When is it?

young men playing traditional steel drums

At many celebrations you can hear steel drum bands play. (Photo by Eric Parker licensed CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Ontario, Emancipation Day is celebrated on August 1, right around the Simcoe Day long weekend. In many countries of the Caribbean such as Antigua, the Bahamas and Grenada, it's celebrated on the first Monday in August. In the United States, it varies from state to state: in Washington, DC, it's the weekend closest to April 16; in Florida it's May 20; and in Texas and many other states it's June 19 (and called Juneteenth).

Why is it important?

a very old photo of a black slave family picking cotton in Georgia in 1850

Family of black American slaves picking cotton in a field in Georgia, around 1850.

For nearly 400 years, millions of children, women and men were taken away from their homes in Africa and brought to the Americas to work as slaves (people who are forced by other people to work for no money at all). They were given lots of work to do, and much of it was very hard and dangerous. They were forced to change their names, their religions and beliefs, stop speaking their languages and they were almost never given permission to go anywhere.

Celebrating Emancipation Day helps us to remember that all people deserve to be treated fairly and with respect.

How is it celebrated?

Today, with everyone making sure to social distance and keep in small groups, Emancipation Day is celebrated very differently. Here are some ways it has been celebrated in the past.

a young boy in red regalia at the Toronto Caribana festival

In Toronto, one of the ways Emancipation is celebrated is with the Caribbean Festival (also known as Caribana), which is held the first Monday in August. It's become the largest Caribbean festival in North America and includes a big parade. (Photo by Eric Parker licensed CC BY-SA 2.0)

The holiday is celebrated in many ways, but it is mostly a time for people to remember and honour the struggles for freedom that people experienced in the past. In Canada, people play African drums, sing songs, recite poems and listen to speeches about respect for all people and unity. These celebrations can take place in parks, auditoriums and even on the subway trains where they honour the people who escaped slavery with the help of many others on the legendary Underground Railroad (a system set up by caring people to help enslaved Africans find freedom).

In Canada, there are Caribbean Carnival celebrations — read all about this how this year's celebrations are going virtual!

the Anse Cafard Slave Memorial statues on the island of Martinique

In Martinique, where they celebrate Emancipation Day as a holiday on May 22, artist Laurent Valére created the Anse Cafard Slave Memorial to commemorate the 150th anniversary of emancipation in the West Indies. There are 20 statues, each 2.4 metres tall. (Photo by Pom Angers licensed CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the Caribbean, Emancipation Day celebrations often last for an entire weekend or in some cases, months! Large, colourful parades, known as carnivals, attract thousands of people living on the islands and tourists from all over the world. There are also processions (group walks), led by government leaders to important places on the island to listen to speeches, watch ceremonies or to enjoy plays and concerts.

Give a shout-out to freedom!

Even if slavery was never a part of your culture's history you can still celebrate freedom:

  • Can you think of ways to celebrate freedom in your culture? What are some ways freedom is celebrated in your culture?
  • What would you call a special day to celebrate freedom in your culture?