Black Windsorites say Emancipation Day is more significant this year
They also say more work needs to be done to tackle anti-Black racism
While celebrations for Emancipation Day may look different this year due to COVID-19, four Black Windsorites say the day is more significant in light of recent events — most notably the death of George Floyd, which sparked worldwide Black Lives Matter protests.
Emancipation Day, celebrated each year on Aug. 1, commemorates the abolition of slavery across the British Empire.
The Slavery Abolition Act received royal assent on Aug. 28, 1833, but the legislation wouldn't come into force across the Empire and its colonies until Aug. 1, 1834.
Since then, communities across Canada, including in Windsor-Essex, hold events in honour of the abolition of slavery.
Fourth year psychology student at the University of Windsor Fardovza Kusow, executive director of the Sandwich Teen Action Group John Elliott, law student Kendra Wilson at the University of Windsor and musician Abdullah Abubakre, also known as Ayola, told CBC News how this year's Emancipation Day takes on a whole new meaning and discussed their hopes for the future.
What does Emancipation Day mean to you?
Kusow: Emancipation Day not only is an acknowledgement and a reminder of what we've accomplished so far, but also a reminder of what's left to be done. As a third generation Black Canadian, I grew up still experiencing anti-Black racism and racism in and of itself, but whenever I would face it head on, I would immediately be invalidated because this is Canada. We're not as bad as you know — insert other country — but it's important to acknowledge that there's still issues deep-rooted in Canada. And as much as we have a wonderful day, such as Emancipation Day, liberation cannot be fully accomplished without the acknowledgement and the accountability that need to be taken for issues that are still happening.
Elliott: When I was about 10 years old and I lived downtown at that time with my family, McDougall Avenue, which was in proximity to Jackson Park, where Emancipation was held, that was a highlight as a kid. That was a highlight event for the year. It was always summer vacation but 'can't wait until Emancipation Day came around.' At the time, I think this celebration ran for about a week and a half. So, it was an extended celebration, just great memories.
Wilson: I was born in Jamaica, and so this is something we have been celebrating since I was a little girl through cultural dances and poetry from icons such as Louis Bennett. As a child, the dark significance of that day did not register to me, but as I grew older, my mother taught me about Black history through books and films, and for the longest time, I felt a great sense of anger and disappointment for the way Black people had been treated. So as it stands, Emancipation Day is a sad reminder of the horrendous period in Canadian history and countries around the world about the lived reality that Black people faced in the past and presently face. I am grateful that we are no longer bounded in chains as Black people, but Emancipation Day is just a constant reminder for me that we have a long way to go. Emancipation is not just a physical act, it's also a state of mind, and with that being said, mental slavery is still a problem. Emancipation is still a problem because Black people are still restricted, targeted and treated unjustly.
Ayola: It's huge, right, because that's about the day we were set free — Black slavery and all. ... but the same time, it's hurtful because seeing that we had to be set free for some things that shouldn't even [have existed] in the first place. ... It's freedom in a painful way.
Does Emancipation Day take on a new significance in light of recent events?
Wilson: The last couple of months show that Emancipation means that we are free from the shackles, but we still have huge issues of supremacy affecting Black livelihood and wellbeing. It's a small view of the battles we have been fighting for the longest time. Windsor is one of the cities of significance that remind me of the realities we have been facing. Just a few steps away, we have the Sandwich First Baptist Church, a significant stop along the Underground Railroad, where enslaved Black people aimed to escape from slavery. As I said, it's great that it's not still an active reality, but the last couple of months show us that the fight against inequality, discrimination and anti-Black racism is something Black people in Canada, and around the world, continue to face. We are not free until we are liberated from these restrictions among others.
Kusow: I've been pretty involved in educating myself on Black history and social justice since high school, but when you talk to others or even my own friends, some people still don't know when Canadian Emancipation Day is or when we talk about a holiday happening this weekend. People usually don't really know which holiday that is. Due to the current political environment and considering that we are in the largest civil rights movement in history, it allows people to take a step back and ask themselves, 'okay, what's going on where I live and how can I further educate myself on my own history, my own country's history and what's left to be done?'
Ayola: Yeah, it does because the George Floyd incident isn't the first of its kind. It's been happening for years and years, but I guess the attention that was paid to this one just made one realize that I think we are moving in the right direction. Normally, I just think 'oh it's just another [political movement]' and we forget about it and everything and go back to normal over time. With the way things are playing out now, I just feel like it's a step in the right direction. ... People are becoming more passionate about it.
What kind of society do you picture yourself living in in the future?
Elliott: All we can do is love each other. You know, foster good friendships. There is racial tension and that sort of thing going on, but we still have to live together. We have to work together. We have to try and get along. I'm thankful we live in Canada because in the backdrop of the U.S. where their problems seem to be rather enormous compared to Windsor's .. and in Canada itself. Although there is systemic racism problems in Canada too, we realize that, but I mean, at the end of the day, that's something that we're going to have to just continue to live with and do our best to try and eliminate it. My thing is just learn to get along.
Ayola: I definitely see racism becoming a thing of the past in my lifetime. Yeah, that's what I hope to happen. And I do feel like it's getting better because there's more integration now than there ever was. So people are coming from different parts of the world you know. Slavery aside, racism is sometimes also a fact of us still getting to know each other and not being able to integrate, but now that everyone is everywhere ... it breeds more integration. And more integration leads to more understanding. So, I definitely feel that in my lifetime, racism would be minimal.
Wilson: The list is endless to be honest. We have made a lot of progress, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us, huge emphasis on a lot. On a large scale, I seek a future society where access to justice issues facing Blacks do not start with large scale protest, but instead, where timely justice for Black victims is no issue at all. A society where Black women do not fear having children as a result of the risk of them dying at a young age or being killed at the hands of cops or people's general racist actions. A society where Black men, there are more of them in fortune 500 companies than in the prison system. Ultimately, a society where we don't have to fight for equality and equity, where justice for Black victims comes easy and the #BlackLivesMatter is not something we constantly have to scream at the top of our lungs just to be heard. This future starts with me and you actively working toward this. Starting now, championing the work of greats like Viola Desmond, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosemary Brown among other important individuals advocating for the human rights of Black people.
Kusow: I feel like I grew up in a generation of youth that is taking a stand and launching initiatives, taking on that leadership role to not only fix but approach the issue head on and work to build a better future for future generations after us because this has been going on for a little too long and it's clear that people are fed up and wish to see a change.
Kusow also urges people to educate themselves.
"Don't be ashamed to ask questions," she said. "There are always resources that you can turn to, people that you can turn to who will be grateful to educate you on what you're asking and it'll lead to a better mindset. And later on, you can tell someone else the same things that you learned."
CBC News learned via email that Richmond Hill Liberal MP Majid Jowhari's has been working with Nova Scotia senator Wanda Thomas Bernard to introduce a motion to Parliament to nationally recognize Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day.
The motion was set to be presented to the house earlier this year, but was delayed due to COVID-19. Jowhari's offices continue to advocate for the motion, according to the email, and will be presenting it again.