British Columbia

What is Juneteenth — and why are people marching for it in Vancouver?

This will be city's first ever large-scale Juneteenth protest commemorating of the end of slavery in the United States. 

U.S. holiday marks end of slavery, but it has taken on deeper meaning today

People gather to protest racism, injustice, and police brutality in Vancouver on June 5. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Another demonstration in support of Black Lives Matter is slated to happen in downtown Vancouver on Friday. This will be the city's first large-scale Juneteenth protest commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. 

The march will coincide with an eight-hour shutdown of cargo operations at B.C. ports to mark the occasion.

While the event's origins are 155 years ago in Texas, this year's Juneteenth protests have taken on greater significance across North America, as protests and awareness about anti-Black racism grow. 

What is Juneteenth?

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery. Although American President Abraham Lincoln has issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1,1863, stating that all slaves in the states currently engaged in rebellion against the Union "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free," many slave owners continued to hold their slaves captive after the announcement. 

Two women hold up signs reading "black lives matter" and "white silence is violence" during an anti-black racism protest in Mississauga this month. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

So Juneteenth became a symbolic date representing African American freedom — nearly two and a half years later.

The holiday received its name by combining June and 19. The day is also sometimes called Emancipation Day, Juneteenth Independence Day and Black Independence Day.

How is it celebrated?

The celebrations in Galveston grew over the years as former slaves brought their families back to mark the occasion. In 1980, Texas became the first state to designate Juneteenth a holiday.

Since then, 45 other states and the District of Columbia have also commemorated or recognized the day.

Is there a connection to Canada?

That's tricky to know for sure, says June Francis, the co-chair of Hogan's Alley. 

The area around the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts in Vancouver was once the heart of a thriving Black community established in the early 1900s known as Hogan's Alley. But if the events Juneteenth were historically marked in British Columbia, it's likely been lost to history. 

"We have this sort of amnesia in Canada where we don't keep records of certain histories," says Francis, who adds she hasn't found any direct links between the events of 1865 and Canada. 

More than a million people from near and far converge on Toronto every year for the Caribbean Carnival. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

But, the idea is marked in other ways in Canada. Slavery was abolished in the British colonies, including Canada, about three decades earlier than the United States on August 1,1834. In Toronto, emancipation is celebrated 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.

So, why are people marking Juneteenth in Vancouver?

Granted this is an event marking a poignant moment in American history, but Clement Isanganino says there are important parallels to contemporary Canada. 

He is a spokesperson for Black Vancouver, which is organizing Friday's Freedom March. 

Clement Isanganino is a spokesperson for Black Vancouver which is organizing Friday's Freedom March. (Stacie DaPonte)

"This is about human rights fundamentally ... Americans like to celebrate Fourth of July," he said. "But what kind of independence is it that leaves out Black people and only gives it to some people? It's kind of hypocritical to celebrate that."

When the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, slavery was still rampant.

He says Juneteenth is an opportunity to educate oneself about Canada's dark and complicated history with racism against the Black community.

"I went to school in Canada, I'm Black, and I only found that slavery existed here a few years ago," he said. "How come we're not talking about this more openly and teaching the truth in schools."

Looking toward Canadian history, Isanganino says there are many examples of systemic racism despite promises of  equality. 

For example, nearly 4,000 American segregated Black soldiers helped build the Alaska Highway, which starts in Dawson Creek, B.C., during the Second World War. During the Second World War, Black soldiers largely were given menial construction, janitorial and cooking duties instead of active fighting — and despite that, their contributions were largely forgotten. 

In this 1942 photo provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Office of History, soldiers work at a makeshift bench while working on the Alaska Highway, in the Northern Sector of Alaska. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Office of History via AP)

"We've got to understand that there are still ankle shackles attached — it's called systemic racism."

For many in the Black community, Francis says true freedom is still far from reality. 

"There's a freedom on paper which doesn't reflect the lived experience of Black Canadians and Americans today," she said. "We're still waiting for our Juneteenth moment ... when we'll be treated equally."

While protesters are marching in Vancouver, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada and the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association have agreed to shut down cargo operations at B.C. ports from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to mark Juneteenth.

"As businesses, as workers, as British Columbians, as Canadians, we cannot sit idly by. We cannot accept racism, hate and intolerance directed at people because of their ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation or faiths," the union and employer said in a joint press release.

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