Happy Civic Holiday!
The Dynamic Trio over at Prairie Fire sent this to me today and I decided to share. Here’s some August 1st history you may not have known about.
Monday, August 1, is a holiday in Canada. Everyone knows that. But what is the name of the holiday?
Most of us call it “the August 1 holiday,” or “the civic holiday” or some other placeholder. Of course these are not its official name, which varies across the country.
The imaginative legislators of New Brunswick dubbed the holiday “New Brunswick Day.” Showing equal verve, legislators in Saskatchewan and British Columbia, respectively, named the holiday “Saskatchewan Day” and “British Columbia Day.” Alberta’s legislators, being the bold mavericks they are, called it “Heritage Day.”
In Ontario, until recently, there was no provincial name, and municipalities honoured local heroes – “Colonel By Day,” “James Coburn Day” – with proclamations which everyone ignored. But three years ago, a private member’s bill finally gave the holiday a name that manages to be provincewide without being provincial, in that other sense.
Know what it is?
Of course not. This name is deeply rooted in the Canadian past. It commemorates one of the greatest struggles in human history. And when people hear it – which they likely won’t since no one uses it – they have no clue what it means.
It is “Emancipation Day.”
You’re scratching your head, aren’t you? Don’t be embarrassed. Be angry – angry that you have been denied a truly majestic story all Canadians should know and cherish.
On August 1, 1834, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. “Emancipation Day” has been celebrated ever since in Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, and elsewhere.
Now you’re wondering what slavery has to do with Canada. We are the nation of the “Underground Railroad,” which brought runaway American slaves to freedom here.
“Emancipation Day” can’t be relevant to Canada because there were no slaves to emancipate. Right?
Go back to the beginning of the abolitionist movement, in Britain. The year is 1787.
“If, early that year, you had stood on a London street corner and insisted that slavery was morally wrong and should be stopped,” wrote Adam Hochschild in his uplifting book Bury the Chains, “nine out of ten listeners would have laughed you off as a crackpot. The tenth might have agreed with you in principle, but assured that ending slavery was wildly impractical: the British Empire’s economy would collapse. The parliamentarian Edmund Burke, for example, opposed slavery but thought that the prospect of ending even just the Atlantic slave trade was ‘chimerical.’”
Four years later, Upper Canada – Ontario – became the newest jurisdiction in the British Empire and John Graves Simcoe was installed as its first lieutenant-governor. Simcoe, an army officer and veteran of the American Revolution, spent most of his early time in Upper Canada preparing for an apparently imminent war with the republicans to the south.
But Simcoe had another passion. He was an abolitionist. And he was offended that there was slavery in his new colony.
In 1793, a free black man named Peter Martin – who had served with Butler’s Rangers in the American Revolution – told the legislature of the abduction of Chloe Cooley, a black slave who had been bound, gagged, thrown in a boat, and taken to the United States for sale. Simcoe seized the opportunity and moved to immediately abolish slavery.
It was a radical, audacious move. And it was too much. Wealthy slaveowners in the legislature resisted and Simcoe was forced to compromise: Existing slaves would be denied their freedom but the importation of slaves would stop and the children of slaves would be freed when they reached age 25. In effect, slavery would slowly vanish.
It was not the sweeping victory Simcoe wanted. But it was the abolitionists’ first legislative victory anywhere in the British Empire.
It made the “chimerical” look considerably more possible.
And it was possible. In 1807, the slave trade was abolished throughout the Empire. In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed and, on August 1, 1834, it came into force.
And the celebrations began, in the Caribbean and elsewhere. “During the two and a half decades before the American Civil War,” noted Adam Hochschild, “free blacks in the Northern states celebrated not July 4, when they were at risk of attack by drunken whites, but August 1, Emancipation Day in the West Indies, a date Frederick Douglass called ‘illustrious among all the days of the year.’”
For generations, African-Canadians also celebrated Emancipation Day. But the memory faded in recent decades. The Ontario Black History Society is working to change that.
“We were able to get, first Toronto, then various cities, including the City of Ottawa, to recognize Emancipation Day,” notes the society’s president, Rosemary Sadlier. In 2008, a private member’s bill passed the Ontario legislature and the generic August 1 holiday became Emancipation Day.
Not that the government bothered to tell anyone, which is why the reader has almost certainly never heard of this before.
It’s also disappointing – and depressingly Canadian – that the holiday continues to go by a patchwork of other names across the country, most of which are devoid of even the slightest meaning. At the federal level, Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai introduced a private member’s bill to mark Emancipation Day in 2001 but it didn’t receive unanimous support and that was the end of it.
“This is the first global human rights legislation,” marvels Sadlier. “How can people not know about it?”
In part, it’s because politicians and popular historians have jettisoned the British elements of our national story, and if you conceive of “Canadian history” as only the history of what happened within our present borders, you won’t see the connection between Simcoe’s courageous efforts and the triumph of August 1, 1834.
But it’s also because this is a country where politicians think it’s a good idea to call a holiday “New Brunswick Day” or “Heritage Day.” Or “Canada Day,” for that matter.
The generic celebration of heritage has replaced real heritage. And politicians – whether from ignorance, risk aversion, or a simple deficiency of soul – are quite happy to let a magnificent, inspiring story like that of John Graves Simcoe and the abolitionist movement be forgotten.
Or perhaps that is too pessimistic. I’ll let Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Heritage Minister James Moore, and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney decide.
Dan Gardner’s column appears Wednesday and Friday. E-mail: [email protected]