Windsor

Canada should formally apologize for slavery, Essex historian says

A local historian is seeking a formal apology for slavery from the Canadian government.

'African-Canadians might feel a little more comfortable in their own country'

Elise Harding-Davis is a local author and historian. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

A Windsor-Essex historian wants the Canadian government to formally apologize for slavery, and she's seeking the support of local municipalities in her advocacy efforts.

Elise Harding-Davis said an apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could bring about healing and acknowledgement of the effects of slavery.

"African-Canadians might feel a little more comfortable in their own country, the country that they fought for ... the country they've contributed mightily to and not gotten a fair shake," said Harding-Davis, who lives in Harrow, Ont.

Harding-Davis spoke with CBC Radio's Tony Doucette on Windsor Morning.

Slavery was outlawed in the British Empire in 1834, more than 30 years before confederation. Even though slavery pre-dates Canada, the nation still benefited from the vestiges of it, she said, and Black people were not invited to become citizens until 1911.

"People don't know these things," Harding-Davis said. "There were many, many anti-Black legislations over the years."

Harding-Davis has written to the prime minister several times advocating for the apology and was also behind a petition last year.

She's currently seeking support from municipalities in the the Windsor-Essex region and has letters of support from the towns of Essex and Amherstburg.

Harding-Davis appeared before Lakeshore town council on Tuesday to deliver a presentation on the topic, and council agreed to send a letter of support to Ottawa.

2017 UN report calls on Canada to apologize

Harding-Davis' concerns reflect mounting criticism that the legacy of slavery within Canada has gone unacknowledged.

A 2017 report from a working group of the United Nations Human Rights Council noted that the enslavement of Black people in what's now Canada began in the 16th century. 

"Canada's history of enslavement, racial segregation and marginalization of African Canadians has left a legacy of anti-Black racism and had a deleterious impact on people of African descent, which must be addressed in partnership with the affected communities," the report's authors stated.

The report called on Canada to apologize for the enslavement of Black Canadians, consider reparations and take steps to preserve the history of slavery in Canada, as well as the contributions of Black Canadians. 

Prime Minister Trudeau asked about slavery apology

Last June, in the midst of the global reckoning on anti-Black racism sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, Trudeau was asked about the UN report and an apology for slavery.

He did not provide a direct answer but said the government has worked closely with the community to support Black Canadians and acknowledged more needs to be done.

Reached for comment on Tuesday, the Prime Minister's Office referred CBC News to the office of Bardish Chagger, the minister responsible for diversity and inclusion as well as youth.

A statement from a spokesperson did not say whether the government would move ahead with an apology, but referenced the government's recognition of the International Decade for People of African Descent and a 2020 private members' motion to recognize Emancipation Day, which marks the abolition of slavery.

"Recognizing Emancipation Day at the federal level would be another step forward in acknowledging the multi-generational harms caused by slavery and the contributions peoples of African descent in Canada have made throughout generations," the spokesperson said in an email.

The spokesperson went on to say that more needs to be done to tackle anti-Black racism and bring about awareness of Black history — "which is why we are committed to do the work."

Over the years, Trudeau and his predecessors have formally apologized for historical injustices against various groups.

Among the official apologies include several to Indigenous peoples, an apology over the Chinese head tax and an apology for sending Japanese-Canadians to internment camps during the Second World War.

Slavery was abolished here decades before Canada officially became a country. But a local Black historian feels an apology is in order from the prime minister. Elise Harding-Davis wrote to Justin Trudeau about it last week, but it's not a new campaign. She has written to him several times before. Now, she's working to get support from elected officials in Windsor-Essex. She speaks with host Tony Doucette. 6:23

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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