Part 2 of 3

Emancipation Day: Breaking free from our national denial

When will the provincial government recognize this important day?
Photo: Gerry Lauzon

Read the first part of this essay on Emancipation Day in Quebec here.

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Emancipation: The act of freeing oneself from authority, servitude or prejudice.

The significance of Emancipation Day — marking the abolition of slavery in the British Empire — is twofold.

First, it allows us to face our history.

Second, this symbolic day is an opportunity to address the road that remains to be travelled.

Our collective narrative

A culture of enslaving Black and Indigenous bodies existed among French colonists during the settlement of New France in North America. Nearly 4,000 Black and Indigenous people were enslaved in New France, between its founding and the adoption of the British Poor Law of 1834, which dictated that the “undeserving” poor — those considered capable of working — had to labour in workhouses in order to receive meagre poverty relief.

If I repeat myself, it’s to be clear.

What does it mean in the context of a pandemic, particularly in Quebec, when the flattering nomenclature of “guardian angels” is used to exploit people whose humanity is obscured and whose dreams of legal status are in turmoil due to delays in processing their applications?

In his book Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage, Quebec historian Marcel Trudel writes that through to 1760, the French and English regimes had about an equal number of slaves.

Article 47 of the Articles of Capitulation of Montreal explicitly states that after the Conquest of 1760, the French, under the new British regime, could continue to practise slavery as they had before. The Slavery Abolition Act, enacted by Britain in 1833 and in effect as of August 1, 1834, had a major impact on what would become the Quebec of today.

This explains the festivities that took place on August 1, 1834, in the port of Montreal, as reported on the City of Montreal’s website:

We celebrate the implementation of the Slavery Abolition Act in the British colonies. A toast to the Empire! [...] On August 1, 1834, in the port of Montreal, a group of Black Montrealers, ardent champions of the abolitionist cause, celebrated the enactment of the Slavery Abolition Act. Across the British colonies, 800,000 slaves were affected by this new legislation, including about 50 in North America.

Strategic denial

This day is an opportunity to acknowledge the collective past of the territory we inhabit while also confronting the distance that stands between us and true emancipation for Black communities.

Of course, denying the colonial past and its impact on these communities is strategic. Recognition would invite a series of reforms that would de-centre the narrative that French-Canadian heritage is the essence of what Quebec must preserve. Already, we are being challenged to recognize the centrality of Indigenous Peoples in these discussions.

Articles and advertisements in Black newspapers discouraged immigration, citing cold weather, racism and a lack of watermelons.

The British Empire financially compensated the families of slaveowners for decades rather than compensating the 800,000 people “freed” from slavery, as well as their children, and we must understand that this trend is also reflected in Quebec institutions.

This tendency to cater to groups that benefit from the exploitation of others is institutionalized in our culture. As the historian Rito Joseph would say, it is “a historical continuity” reflecting a dependence on “colonial vestiges” that are expressed as much in our place names — when we no longer know, in a Quebec that calls itself secular, à quel Saint se vouer (“which saint to follow,” or where to turn) — as in the institutionalized surveillance of black bodies.

I wonder, too, where the ardent defenders of the use of the n-word were in 2011 when it was found in the names of 11 places across Quebec, to which Black communities expressed their discomfort at the time.

I think a lot about the refugees seeking safety at Roxham Road. [...] – Matthew Green, NDP Member of Parliament.

While the entire House of Commons voted to recognize August 1 as Emancipation Day, I invite them to examine Canadian foreign policy that directly contributes to the conditions that lead to planned or sudden exoduses of Black populations from their home countries.

Keeping Black people out at any cost

As local historian Webster (Aly Ndiaye) tells us, Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government spared no effort to limit Black immigration to Canada in 1911.

More than a third ended up leaving for Sierra Leone.

Medical tests imposed on people arriving at the borders were accompanied by bonuses to doctors for each person turned away. Dr. Maxwell Wallace made $1,710 in 25 months — good money at the time. Illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes, asthma, cellulitis, varicose veins, cleft palates and eczema were used as pretexts to prevent Black people from entering the country. Some were refused entry because they were pregnant. Even after two years in the country, the threat of deportation loomed.

Articles and advertisements in Black newspapers discouraged immigration, citing cold weather, racism and a lack of watermelons. Dr. C. W. Miller of Chicago attracted audiences from the American South who were unfamiliar with the Canadian climate. He told terrifying stories — “tales from the northside,” which were reprinted in the Southern Black press — describing his memories of visiting Canada, recounting horrific scenes of Black people frozen along the roadsides, where they remained until the spring thaw.

The meaning of emancipation

When the Government of Canada announces the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent to highlight important contributions and to provide a platform for confronting anti-Black racism, this would be a perfect time for the Prime Minister to make clear that recognition and acknowledgement in the form of reparations for the displacement of historical Black settlements, from Africville to Hogan’s Alley and every settlement in between. - Matthew Green

What does emancipation mean? And what does it mean in the context of a pandemic, particularly in Quebec, when the flattering nomenclature of “guardian angels” is used to exploit people whose humanity is obscured and whose dreams of legal status are in turmoil due to delays in processing their applications?

A comparison can be made with the Black Loyalists, those former slaves who fought alongside British troops in the hope of emancipation, only to find themselves in hostile territory, with underpaid jobs and prohibitions against being buried and identified even in death, leading many to leave their homelands in Nova Scotia. More than a third ended up leaving for Sierra Leone.

Here in Quebec, nearly 300 years later, the provincial Ombudsman recently broke their silence to reveal that in just one year, reports of lost documents, unfulfilled commitments, and a lack of cooperation from the Quebec government in matters of immigration had quadrupled. Many immigrant workers are seriously considering leaving the province.

Historical continuity? If so, Emancipation Day remains relevant. And if we’re talking about emancipation, real empathy needs to take hold of the whole population, so the voices of those at their breaking point can be heard.

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