By Shirley Roberts
June 19th was made a federal holiday in the United States in 2021 by President Joe Biden. African Americans have celebrated this day, referred to as Juneteenth, since the late 1800s, but what exactly is Juneteenth all about and do we celebrate it in Canada?
Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Specifically, it marks the day, June 19th, 1865, when enslaved African Americans in Texas were informed of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended. This occurred more than two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued by President Abraham Lincoln. The holiday received its name by combining June and 19. The day is also sometimes called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day” (Derrick Bryson Taylor, New York Times, 2021).
Although African Americans have celebrated this day with prayer, parades, family gatherings, festivals, educational events, music and food since 1865, it has been largely unknown to most other Americans. Recently, the murders of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police have reenergized the Black Lives Matter movement and generated more worldwide awareness about the impact of racism. Consequently, these events have also sparked new interest in Juneteenth, the day marked to celebrate freedom.
Canadian history of racism towards Black and Indigenous people was shaped differently than for our neighbours to the south and so was our history of emancipation. According to Lincoln Anthony Blades, in Canada “Juneteenth is not Emancipation Day and Emancipation Day is not Juneteenth” (CBC Opinion piece, 2021). He suggests that while it is crucial to recognize the similarities of the prejudice that exists worldwide, it is also important to honour the experiences, traditions and contributions of Black Canadians, who have primarily come to Canada through immigration, which are very different from those of African Americans.
We cannot overlook the Black and Indigenous Peoples who were once enslaved in Canada. In “Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Centuries of Bondage” the historian Marcel Trudel estimated that there were about 4,200 people enslaved in the area that came to be known as Canada between 1671 and 1831. Approximately two-thirds were Indigenous and one-third were of African descent. These numbers increased as British colonial settlers arrived in Upper Canada.
Our country is often depicted as the land of freedom for escaped African Americans, however, Canadians often have a blind spot when it comes to our own history of slavery. In a 2021 CBC Opinion piece, Sarah Raughley suggests that this depiction asks us “not to consider the link between the mythologizing of Canada as a multicultural bastion of freedom and the country’s erasure of its violent colonial past.” According to Raughley, Emancipation Day is an important step toward equality, but only if “accompanied with a genuine will to pair recognition with action and justice.” Canadians still have a lot of work to do.
In 2021, MPs in the House of Commons voted to mark August 1 as Emancipation Day in acknowledgement of August 1, 1834, the day the British Empire officially abolished slavery. On the first day of August, “Canadians are invited to reflect, educate and engage in the ongoing fight against anti-Black racism and discrimination.” https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/emancipation-day.html
Click here to watch a short video about the history of Juneteenth and why it still resonates today.