Toronto

Art initiative marks Emancipation but story of slavery in Canada needs more attention, activists say

A collective of Toronto museums has released a set of new art projects by Black artists to celebrate Emancipation Month, but while many welcome the initiative, others say the focus should be on educating people about Canada's legacy of slavery.

Toronto History Museums collective displaying 4 works of art to mark Emancipation Month

Artist Quentin VerCetty's AR installation called 'Ancestral Uprising' can be viewed anywhere in the city using a smartphone. It is pictured here at Colborne Lodge. (Colborne Lodge, Quentin VerCetty, Ancestral Uprising, 2021)

A collective of Toronto museums has released a set of new art projects by Black artists to celebrate Emancipation Month, but while many welcome the initiative, others say the focus should be on educating people about Canada's legacy of slavery.

To celebrate Emancipation Month, which marks when slavery was abolished in British colonies in 1834, the city announced on Tuesday the release of several art projects by Black artists through the Toronto History Museums collective.

Quentin VerCetty, a Toronto artist, is one of them, releasing an augmented-reality (AR) art installation called Ancestral Uprising.

Using a smartphone, his artwork can be seen anywhere in the city. It's a reimagination of the Black power fist with a golden base that represents the value of Black life by likening it to gold, and purple hibiscus flowers that represent healing and royalty.

Creating a virtual installation was also an artistic choice, VerCetty says.

"The AR was meant to disrupt space but also affirm spaces where history has taken place and there are no physical memorials or plaques to honour those stories," he said.

VerCetty's AR installation Ancestral Uprising can be seen anywhere in the city using a smartphone. (Quentin VerCetty, Ancestral Uprising, 2021)

While working on the piece, VerCetty spoke with Black and Indigenous elders to ensure he represented the struggles of different generations and communities. The fist features patterns and designs that were once used by the Ndebele people in South Africa during colonization and apartheid to encourage people to stay resilient.

And similar to Indigenous teachings, he says African knowledge also teaches that people are connected to the land. VerCetty includes a flower at the back of the piece to honour these lessons that deal with living in harmony with others and the Earth.

"Speaking with elders is such an important aspect for me to hear what the commonalities are of what they feel is needed for today's generation to move forward," he said.

'Emancipation doesn't just speak about the past'

In light of Black Lives Matter protests and a pandemic that disproportionately impacts Black communities, VerCetty says he hopes that, especially during this month, his art sparks a curiosity in people. He hopes they'll learn how to create more equitable societies.

Reflecting on lessons from the past, he says, is one of the ways he believes that will happen.

"Emancipation doesn't just speak about the past, but also about the present and how we want to move forward," he said.

"I want people to think about what paths and trails we're laying for tomorrow, as our ancestors have done for us in the past."

A reimagined portrait of Mary Ann Shadd by artist Adeyemi Adegbesan is one of the art projects launched as part of the Awakenings program. (City of Toronto)

The Toronto History Museums' initiative is part of a larger program launched by the city to address anti-Black racism, called Awakenings.

Other pieces that are part of the program include:

  • A portrait of journalist, newspaper publisher and lawyer Mary Ann Shadd on the exterior of the Mackenzie House Museum.
  •  A short film titled Superbloom: An Emancipation Story and an updated lyric video for Kardinal Offishall's song Freedom Heights (A Song for Joshua Glover), made in collaboration with the Toronto Raptors.

'We need to know the pain'

Like others who attended public schools in the city, Rosemary Sadlier didn't learn of Canada's history of slavery until she was in high school.

"I was horrified when I found out ...  And I'm a descendent of freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad on one side of my family," she said, referring to escaped Black slaves who used a network of secret routes and safehouses called the Underground Railroad to escape to Canada in the early-to-mid-19th century. 

Rosemary Sadlier, the previous president of the Ontario Black History Society, didn't learn about Canada's legacy of slavery until high school. She says more needs to be done to educate people outside of Emancipation Month. (Submitted by Rosemary Sadlier)

An author, social justice advocate and previous president of the Ontario Black History Society, Sadlier has been campaigning to have Emancipation Day recognized across Canada since 1995.

It was only on Aug.1 of this year that Canada marked its first federally recognized Emancipation Day, she points out. Mayor John Tory also announced August would be Emancipation Month in Toronto.

Although Sadlier supports the city's initiatives to honour the month, she says more needs to be done to educate students and the wider public about slavery in Canada

"We have to move away from bringing all of the time focus and resources to particular days or months," said Sadlier.

"That applies to Emancipation Month as well. It's not supposed to be the only time we discuss slavery; it is a time when we bring special focus to it."

Black History Month, for example, which Sadlier also advocated for, was never meant to be the only time that people spoke or learned about Black history. Instead, she says, it was designed to be a time for people to share knowledge and discuss what they had learned throughout the year.

When it comes to viewing the work of Black artists, Shenikqwa Phillip, program manager for Black Women in Motion, a Toronto-based organization that supports Black survivors of gender-based violence, adds it is crucial for people to learn about the activism and history of what that art represents.

"If we're expressing the beauty, we need to know the pain," she said.

"We need to acknowledge that Canada has a history of colonial violence, not only towards Black folks but also towards Indigenous folk in terms of how this country was built."


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.

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