Simcoe Day: Canada's roots in slavery and the historic abolition

Toronto's name for the August civic holiday not only celebrates Upper Canada's first lieutenant governor but also relates to one of the country's biggest cultural festivals and the abolishment of slavery.
August's civic holiday is named 'Simcoe Day' in Toronto in honour of Upper Canada's first lieutenant governor and the man who initiated the abolishment of slavery in Canada. (Wikimedia Commons)

The holiday celebrated on the first Monday of August — giving many, but not all Canadians a mid-summer, long weekend — is known by many names.

It's British Columbia Day in Canada's western-most province and Natal Day in Nova Scotia.

But in Ontario, the holiday Monday is known by more than one name. Ottawa celebrates Colonel By Day and it's Joseph Brant Day in Burlington.

In Toronto, however, it's known as Simcoe Day in honour of John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada's first lieutenant governor and the man who initiated the abolishment of slavery in Canada.

Toronto City Council established the civic holiday in honour of Simcoe in 1869.

It's no coincidence that, in of all places, Simcoe's name still resonates in southern Ontario.

Slavery in Canada

Simcoe was a known supporter of abolition.

"His bill was brought about by an incident — the Chloe Clooey incident," said Natasha Henry, a curriculum consultant specializing in African Canadian history.

Simcoe received word of a slave owner violently abusing his slave, a girl by the name of Chloe Clooey, on his way across the Niagara River where he went to sell her into the United States. It was said that her screams were heard by many and the matter was brought to Simcoe's attention by Peter Martin, a former slave.

"It was his impetus to introduce the bill, but it was then met by objection from a number of the members of his government," Henry said.

Many members of the legislative assembly at the time owned slaves of their own and so resisted Simcoe's urge to abolish slavery in Canada.

The resulting law was a compromise that would gradually lead to the end of enslavement.

The act allowed slave owners to maintain the workforce they already had — who would remain enslaved until their death.

Owners were not allowed to purchase new slaves from the United States and any children of female slaves that were born after the act was passed would become free at the age of 25.

Simcoe's anti-slavery act was the first to pass in a British colony and remained in effect until August 24, 1833, when Britain's Slavery Abolition Act put an end to slavery in most of the empire.

Emancipation Day

Emancipation Day is celebrated across the former British colonies. Countries in the Caribbean as well as Canada and some parts of the United States mainly observe these days in August because of the Slavery Abolition Act.

Although the name is still only cemented in Toronto, the entire province of Ontario has dedicated the civic holiday to Emancipation Day since 2008.

In Ontario, the largest Emancipation Day celebration takes place in Owen Sound.

Although many just see it as a day off, Henry thinks it's important for people — especially youth — to see where the name comes from, because the name in and of itself is at least a start at engaging in the topic.

"The weekend is a way of getting to have a discussion about slavery and the growing abolition movement," she said. "[It was] a movement that later would also spark the flood of freedom seekers from the United States."

Caribbean festival connection

It's quite significant that Toronto is where the holiday retains the original name.

Simcoe moved the capital of Upper Canada from Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) to Toronto, which he named York in 1793.

Since 1967, Toronto has been home to the annual Caribbean Carnival, or as it used to be known, Caribana. Henry said the festival’s traditions are related to Emancipation Day celebrations that some Canadians brought from their former home countries.

"How it's celebrated stems from the committee that was struck up in the 1960s, preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Canada," Henry said.

"People were asked to put on some various cultural events, so these committee members, a lot of whom were immigrants from the Caribbean, infused into this event some of the ways in which Emancipation Day was celebrated back home."

The festival of food, costume, music and dance attracts more than one million people annually.

Henry says understanding the reason behind the name is important because of the conversation it generates.

"Understanding the reason behind the name generates conversation, it also puts Toronto and Ontario at the centre of an international discussion on the practice of owning and selling people."

Motions to declare the civic holiday as "Simcoe Day" across the province have been put forth but have thus far failed. 


  • An earlier version of this story said that Regatta Day was celebrated in Newfoundland on the first Monday in August. In St. John's, N.L., it is held on the first Wednesday in August, weather permitting.
    Aug 05, 2013 6:40 AM ET