Marchers in Toronto call for end to systemic anti-Black racism on Emancipation Day

At least 100 people marched in downtown Toronto to celebrate Emancipation Day and to call for an end to anti-Black racism in government institutions in Canada.

Demonstrators celebrate freedom, but also call for real change to improve Black lives

People marched in downtown Toronto to celebrate Emancipation Day on Saturday but also to call for an end to institutional anti-Black racism. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

At least 100 people marched in downtown Toronto to celebrate Emancipation Day and to call for an end to anti-Black racism in government institutions in Canada.

Emancipation Day, marked every year on Aug. 1, commemorates the abolition of slavery across the British Empire.

Marchers called for an end to anti-Black racism in such areas as child welfare, policing, the criminal justice system, arts and culture, education and health care.

Yvette Blackburn, a spokesperson for the Global Jamaica Diaspora Council, said people marched to celebrate freedom but also to demand that real change take place to improve the lives of Black people.

"What is freedom? Freedom comes at a cost. And right now, it's the cost of the lives and the interactions that we, as Black people, have to deal with every day in society," Blackburn told reporters.

"With the push of anti-Black racism and the recognition of our value and our work, we must be here to walk on this day to say that changes have to be implemented so that we get rid of anti-Black racism and the institutional discrimination that has been happening."

A marcher on College Street holds a sign during Emancipation Day in Toronto. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

The march began at the Children's Aid Society of Toronto, 30 Isabella St., and ended at the Ontario legislature.

Along the route, marchers stopped at a number of points, including the Toronto Police Service headquarters, 40 College St., and the Ontario education ministry, 438 University Ave.

"It is our children that are being impacted at a greater rate, at being institutionalized, at being displaced from families, having to deal with the educational system. The bonds and chains are no longer holding us, however, we are still bridled by the fact of discrimination and racism that exists in the institutions and the systems. We have to break those," Blackburn said.

"By being here on Emancipation Day, it's to say that we need to look structurally into the frameworks of discrimination and racism that are impacting us across the board."

Blackburn said activists are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to apologize to Black people in Canada for slavery. 

"There's never been an apology issued. I think it's time. Emancipation should be everywhere," she said.

Emancipation Day is 'solemn' and 'sacred,' marcher says

Bishop Ransford Jones, lead pastor at the Destiny Gospel Centre in Markham, said that Emancipation Day is a historic day in Canada.

"Today is a very significant day. It is a solemn day. It is a sacred day for the abolition of slavery," he told reporters during the march. "We have to come to ensure that we use our freedom of today to ensure the freedom for people of tomorrow."

A speaker addresses the crowd on Emancipation Day from the back of a truck. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Jones said he wants his two young children to live in a fair, free and equitable society.

"The key message today is that we want to ensure systemic institutionalized racism in Canada is dismantled so that all people can live free."

Police killing of George Floyd has led to a 'great awareness'

Jones added that the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked street protests around the world, has led to a "great awareness" and a new momentum against anti-Black racism.

"People are recognizing that the systems that have been entrenched over time do not serve marginalized, racialized, especially Black people. We want to ensure that those systems are torn down and that things will change for the betterment of our people and society in general," he added.

At a rally before the march, he told the crowd: "We are appealing to those in authority today that you must take your knees off people's necks and let them breathe in our spaces and in our places so we can all enjoy all this great country of Canada."

Jacqueline Edwards, president of Association of Black Law Enforcers, said Black people who work in law enforcement are trying to change the system from within. Edwards works for Correctional Service of Canada.

"We want the community to know that while there are problems within our systems, there are a number of us as well that are part of that system that are carrying ourselves the right way and that are acknowledging the need for change," Edwards said.

What is new in the anti-Black racism movement is the collaboration for change, not the recognition that change is necessary, she added.

"Everybody needs to take an active role in stomping out racism," she said.

Marchers chanted "No Justice, No Peace!" and "Peace on the left, justice on the right!" and "When Black lives are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!"

Several Black-focused organizations supported march

The Slavery Abolition Act received royal assent on Aug. 28, 1833 and the legislation came into force across the Empire and its colonies on Aug. 1, 1834.

Since that time, Canadian communities have staged events to celebrate the abolition of slavery.

Organizations that supported Toronto's march are: A Different Booklist Cultural Centre, Black Artists' Networks In Dialogue, Black Health Alliance, Black Medical Students' Association at University of Toronto, CareMongering-TO, Destiny Gospel Centre, Global Jamaica Diaspora Council, Jamaican Canadian Association, Ma'at Legal Services, Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators, Unifor and Zero Gun Violence Movement.

Members of the Afro Indigenous Rising collective hold a banner during the march. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

With files from Katerina Georgieva