Today is Emancipation Day in Ontario, celebrated by our black communities to commemorate the abolition of chattel slavery throughout the British Empire, as well as Ontario’s being the first jurisdiction to do so.
But the holiday is little known to white settlers: although we often pride ourselves on our tolerance and equality, we are undereducated as to the histories of racism and oppression on our lands.
It’s been called a number of things and celebrated on different days, sometimes celebrates American emancipation as well as British, and it still has different names in different parts of Ontario (such as Simcoe Day), but Emancipation has been celebrated since at least the 1830s. Emancipation Day only officially became an Ontario holiday in 2008.
The Stouffville Sun-Tribune ran a piece in 2005 about the various names for the early-August holiday in Ontario. It opens with a joke about the abolition of slavery and goes on to round up the different reasons to celebrate a day dedicated to John Graves Simcoe:
Looking back through the popular Ontario press, you can see the ways in which Emancipation Day was talked about (or ignored) by white journalists and columnists over the past 180 years. The following excerpts contain historical language we now consider racist and pejorative.
Columnist R. H. Tinsdale for the Newmarket Era, circa 1909, would write the society columns and about local events and goings-on, including some of his own thoughts. He noted Emancipation Day several times, in this case celebrating the USA’s Emancipation Proclamation, as being a “coloured folks’ day of rejoicing.” He referred to black people as having a “quaint dialect,” and said they should be grateful to Lincoln.
Many newspapers, such as the Northern Advance in 1901, offer only one line of mention: “The colored folks at Windsor celebrated emancipation day in great style.” Similarly, in 1893, the celebrations in Chatham are noted by the County of Leeds Advertiser as being in “grand style.”
The Watchman-Warder from 1899, published in Lindsay, offers us some more detail:
“The morning dawned fair and bright upon the union celebration … Sports and a street parade comprised the remainder of the day, and they were much enjoyed by those present.”
Lots of coverage points out that black celebrants are being tasteful or classy, in ways that indicate too much enthusiasm would be insulting or overstepping their rights. A celebration in Chatham is noted in the 1915 Kent Historical Society papers with one paragraph, particularly noting the “thrift” of the procession:
In 1955, the Acton Free Press published a historical article about the Oakville area, starting with what they knew about Indigenous use of the land at that time. It includes a mention of black people settling in Oakville as refugees from slavery, and after the Civil War ended – “honest, industrious, God-fearing”:
By the 1960s, coverage is expanding to full stories, especially noting attendees of more than 50,000 people:
The change in tone gradually moves from conceptualizing Emancipation Day as “Their celebrations,” casting black Ontarians as the Other to dominant white culture, towards a shared celebration to which we all “contribute to racial understanding” and Canada’s stance on equality is seen as a hard contrast to Cold War countries’ authoritarianism.
You can find more descriptions of Emancipation Day over the years by searching our extensive Ontario community newspaper holdings on OurOntario.ca or on INK, our collection of full-page digitized newspapers. Or, for a change of perspective, read the Provincial Freeman or the Voice Of The Fugitive, the first two black-run publications in Canada.
You can learn more about Ontario’s black history by taking a look at our recently published virtual exhibit: