Nova Scotia

It's time for Canada to apologize for slavery, says N.S. senator

In every speech Nova Scotia Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard makes for Emancipation Day this year she’ll ask the same question: what’s next?

Recognizing Emancipation Day is only a first step, says Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard

Emancipation Day marks the abolition of slavery in parts of the British Empire. The Slavery Abolition Act went into effect on Aug. 1, 1834. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

In every speech Nova Scotia Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard makes for Emancipation Day this year, she'll ask the same question: what's next?

It's a question she's posing to federal and provincial governments, as well as individual Canadians, as the country marks the day slavery was abolished in the British Empire.

Federal politicians voted unanimously last year to recognize Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day in Canada. It was on that day in 1834 that the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect, freeing about 800,000 enslaved people in most British colonies.

But recognizing the day nationally was only a first step, Thomas Bernard said. This year, she's renewing calls for an apology for the intergenerational harms of slavery and for reparations.

"The apology for the historic harm is really, really important and it also would signal to African Canadians a recognition that our presence and our contributions and the harms that we've experienced over the years, that there's some ownership … there's some responsibility taken for that," she told CBC Radio's Mainstreet this week. 

Listen to Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard's full interview:

Emancipation Day recognition forces Canada to confront 'its full history,' senator says

2 years ago
Duration 10:03
Featured VideoSen. Wanda Thomas Bernard says it's important for Canada to celebrate Emancipation Day to confront its history and fight against anti-Black racism and inequalities.

In July, the federal government apologized to the descendants of the No. 2 Construction Battalion for the systemic anti-Black racism they faced during the First World War.  

Thomas Bernard spoke at the historic event in Truro about the history of slavery, and how after it was officially abolished, "anti-Black racism took root" in this country.

Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard pushed for years for the Canadian government to mark Emancipation Day each Aug. 1. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

She said the lack of an official apology for slavery is among the Canadian government's "unfinished business."

"There was very clearly a signal there that more apologies are due and more reparations are due, and that's the next step of this journey," she said. 

6 days of events in Guysborough County

Mary Desmond, a municipal councillor in Guysborough County, hopes the second Emancipation Day is a chance for Nova Scotians to deepen their understanding of the history of slavery, and its lasting legacy.

The municipality is hosting six days of events this year, from emancipation-themed bingo to a gospel concert and a seniors' tea. 

Listen to Mary Desmond's full interview:

On Emancipation Day, a call for an apology, reparations

1 year ago
Duration 6:08
Featured VideoThe federal government should apologize for slavery in Canada and make amends for the discrimination that followed abolition, says historian and educator Afua Cooper

Desmond said she was shocked to learn that there was a whipping post in the town, and an auction block where enslaved people were sold.

"We're still learning because our history was not taught in the school system, and it's still not taught. We're just getting bits and pieces," she said.

While many Canadians know about the Underground Railroad, fewer have learned about this country's 200-year history of enslaving people of African descent and Indigenous people.

American scholar Brett Rushforth has written about the enslavement of Indigenous peoples, and said it was very common in the colonies that would become Canada.

In Guysborough County this year, Emancipation Day will be marked with six days of activities across several historic Black communities. (Robert Short/CBC)

"When you talk about slavery in the French period — that is prior to 1763 — the vast majority of people who were held in slavery were Indigenous," said Rushforth, who wrote Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous & Atlantic Slaveries in New France.

Yet, despite the brutality they endured, it's clear that enslaved people resisted and formed communities, Rushforth said.

"There is not just a sense of victimization, which was very real, but also a sense of remarkable creative resilience, remarkable willingness to find meaning in life," he said. 

'A first step'

For Thomas Bernard, Canada's second official Emancipation Day is an opportunity to confront this history and to commit to doing something about it.

"One of the things that frustrates me a lot is the fact that there's really little understanding of multigenerational trauma caused by the violence of racism," she said. "Not just the violence of individual racism, but the violence of systemic racism."

She encourages Nova Scotians who are not of African descent to look around their own lives and ask, "Who's missing and what can I do about it?"

"I think that many people saw the official recognition of Emancipation Day as sort of the end goal. I see it as a first step," she said.

Watch Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard's remarks for the first Emancipation Day:

A spokesperson for the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs said the department is "open to the discussion" of reparations for slavery.

"Reparations or redress involves an open dialogue with African Nova Scotian communities and all levels of government," Amelia Jarvis wrote in an email.

On Sunday, a spokesperson for the Office of the Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion issued a statement.

"On August 1, 2021, our government officially recognized and marked Emancipation Day in Canada. Black history is Canadian history, and we have a responsibility to ensure that these truths are kept alive. Recognizing the destructive legacy of slavery also means acknowledging that its impact on Black communities did not end on August 1, 1834.

"We recognize that while slavery was abolished in what is now Canada nearly two centuries ago, It was not the end of the fight for freedom for Black people and communities. The legacy of anti-Black hate and racism is still prevalent today."

The statement went on to say that the government continues to work with Black communities in Canada to "to tackle discrimination, break systemic barriers, and build a more equitable society."

"Through Canada's first-ever Anti-Racism Strategy, we will continue to tackle economic inclusion, advance justice reforms, and enhance grassroots supports, with programs like the Supporting Black Canadian Communities Initiative and the Black-led Philanthropic Endowment Fund.

"Many strides have been made thanks to a legacy of advocacy and dedication of Black Canadians, past and present, and we know there is still much work to be done. We will continue our efforts in the fight against anti-Black racism, hate and discrimination in Canada."

On Monday, the provincial government is commemorating Emancipation Day with a ceremony that will be live streamed on the Black Cultural Centre's YouTube page.

Watch historian and educator Afua Cooper's call for apology for slavery in Canada and reparations:

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

a logo with fists raised
Being Black in Canada highlights stories about Black Canadians. (CBC)


Emma Smith

Digital Associate Producer

Emma Smith is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. You can email her with story ideas and feedback at

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet