Explainer: Emancipation Day

Aug. 1 marks the day all Black and Indigenous Peoples were set free from slavery in Canada

Aug. 1 is officially recognized as Emancipation Day in Canada, honoring the slavery of Black and Indigenous Peoples. (ShutterStock/shutting)

Aug. 1 is officially recognized as Emancipation Day in Canada, commemorating the abolition of slavery across the British Empire. (ShutterStock/shutting)

In Canadian history, Aug. 1 marks Emancipation Day on which all Black and Indigenous Peoples were set free from slavery, and last year the House of Commons unanimously voted to officially recognize the day nationwide. 

In the 1400 and 1500s, European explorers seized Indigenous Peoples while exploring North America and transported them back to Europe as slaves. They were considered “exotic people” from the new land. 

Slavery in early Canada was carried out by European traders and colonists from France and England. By the early 1600s, European traders and colonists participated in the purchasing, selling, and enslaving of Black people in New France. During this time, slaves were then forced to do manual labour, and were starved and tortured. 

The majority of enslaved individuals in Canada worked as domestic servants in homes, doing the cooking and cleaning and caring for the kids of their owners. Many worked at their owner’s establishments, such as hotels, taverns, mills, and butcher shops. Some Black slaves were forced to clear land, cut wood, build log cabins, and make furniture. 

The first anti-slavery legislation passed in Canada was the Act Against Slavery in 1793, which ended the importation of slaves to Upper Canada, now Ontario. The act also freed future children of female slaves at the age of 25, so present and future slaves were not entirely freed themselves. 

By the 1830s, millions of African Canadians were enslaved. The Slavery Abolition Act was approved by the Royal Assent on Aug. 28, 1833 and took affect Aug. 1, 1834.

This outlawed slavery in the British Empire, including Canada at the time, but only slaves six years and younger were freed. As part of the “reparation” payment to their former owners, the young slaves older than six were considered “apprentices” and required to work 40-hours a week without pay. 

Full liberation came on July 31 in 1838. The act freed more than 800,000 African slaves and their future generations in parts of the Caribbean, Africa, South America, and Canada. Former owners of slaves received compensation by the British government, and those formerly enslaved received none. 

The Emancipation Day Act, Bill 111, was given Royal Assent in 2008 in Canada. Twelve years later, Canadian MPs in the House of Commons voted to officially recognize Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day in Canada. 

Emancipation Day honors former Black and Indigenous slaves, and is particularly celebrated in communities that once housed slaves who fled to the United States, particularly Windsor, Toronto, Hamilton, and Owen Sound. 

The day also promotes education of Canada’s history to current and future generations, and recognizes the large role Black and Indigenous Peoples had.