Marking Emancipation Day

Jul 28, 2022

On August 1 we commemorate Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. This is an important opportunity for all Nova Scotians to reflect on the legacy of anti-Black racism and the psychological, social, and cultural impacts on people of African descent caused by the horrors of slavery. It is also a time to honour the resilience and contributions of African Nova Scotians to all facets of our society.

By the early 19th century, the persistent struggles of enslaved African people and a growing fear of potential uprising among plantation owners signalled the imminent end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The economy of Britain was rapidly changing at this time as new international commerce began to emerge.

Revolts by enslaved African people (e.g. the Baptist War) played a significant role in the abolition of slavery. We must not buy into the narrative that slavery ended simply because of the benevolence and goodwill of some Europeans but acknowledge the resilience of those held in captivity.

In August 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was enacted and took effect on August 1, 1834. This legislation was developed for the abolition of slavery throughout the British Colonies and to compensate slave owners.  The Act abolished slavery in most British colonies, resulting in the emancipation of 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, South Africa and Canada.

No enslaved African people or their descendants were compensated at the time of emancipation or in the years following. Slave owners were paid approximately £20 million “for their loss”. These payments represented a significant portion of Britain’s GDP at this time. The repayment of the loan for this compensation did not officially finish until 2015.

On March 24, 2021, members of parliament unanimously voted to designate August 1 as Emancipation Day in Canada. On April 13, 2021, Nova Scotia introduced legislation to recognize August 1 as Emancipation Day. The first Emancipation Day was commemorated in 2021, across Canada.

While we may feel far removed from this history of enslavement it is important that we recognize our society is built upon a foundation where slavery was a reality, and the culture of colonialism remains woven tightly into our society to this day. As we continue to reckon with our shared history, we must commemorate dates like Emancipation Day with a willingness to engage in challenging conversations and accept difficult truths.

As Senator Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard reminds us, Emancipation Day allows us “to pause, remember our painful past, reflect on our present and prepare for a better future for people of African descent. This recognition will help us to move toward collective healing and a more socially just province.”

The preceding is a statement from Joseph Fraser, Director & CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

How can you recognize Emancipation Day?

  • Participate in events commemorating Emancipation Day across the province.
  • Continue the conversation around anti-Black racism and our collective responsibility in building an equitable society for all, regardless of race.
  • Provide a space to acknowledge the history and contemporary issues affecting African Nova Scotians and positive actions for addressing them.
  • Support efforts to pursue reparations.