Rev. Dr. Paul Douglas Walfall writes that Emancipation Day may be inconvenient for some, but it’s essential for us all to commemorate.

An illustration of two Black arms and hands breaking the shackles which bound them.
Credit: Courtesy of Paul Doulass Walfall
Published On: July 30, 2021

History is told not to make us comfortable; if history does not lead to reflection and analysis, we have not been told history. Much has been said in the past few days about the need to better know the complete history of Canada. It has become patently clear that there are parts of our country’s history that are either not known or are scarcely known. There are parts of the history of Canada that are painful to recall. It seems that these parts are inconvenient to remember and consequently are not spoken about. That which is not talked about becomes forgotten or unknown. The commemoration of Emancipation on August 1 is one of those inconvenient parts of our history.

Emancipation is inconvenient primarily because if we are to commemorate it, we must acknowledge that chattel slavery of Black people occurred in this land. In addition, this piece of history is inconvenient because it goes against what we have taught about Canada. Canada has been known as the "free north"; the last station on the “Underground Railroad,” the place that welcomed the enslaved who fled from the United States. It is therefore inconceivable that the place that offered freedom to the enslaved could be the place that also had enslaved people. Yet it is accurate, and this is part of our history we must come to terms with.

The commemoration of Emancipation is also inconvenient because it disturbs the traditions and customs that have developed in Canada over the years. If you were to use the search online for a reason for a public holiday on August 1, it is intriguing the answer that you would get. The names by which the day is known varies across Canada. It's called Regatta Day in Newfoundland, Terry Fox Day in Manitoba, Saskatchewan Day in Saskatchewan, British Columbia Day in British Columbia, Natal Day in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, Simcoe Day in Toronto, New Brunswick Day in New Brunswick, Colonel By Day in Ottawa, Heritage Day in Alberta and Joseph Brant Day in Burlington, Ontario. As well, it is called Benjamin Vaughan day in the City of Vaughan, Ontario. For many it is simply Civic Holiday.

While in some places, primarily in Ontario, there is a celebration of Emancipation, it is not a widely held celebration in Canada. Given the entrenched celebrations already occurring, it is little wonder that it would be inconvenient to add another understanding to the day. This came clear to me at a recent meeting of my Regional Council. When a proposal came forward to ask that August 1 is observed as Emancipation Day in The United Church of Canada, it was met with many questions. Some questioned why this could not be done in February, during Black History Month. For some, it would seem convenient to have the commemoration of anything associated with Black people confined to one month of the year. Anything outside of February is simply inconvenient.

Yet to stay on the side of convenience is to stay in a place that defies the truth. The truth is that there was chattel slavery in what became known as Canada. At that time, the truth is that 1) we were part of the British Empire, 2) on August 1, 1834, slavery was abolished and made illegal in the British Empire, and 3) because of Emancipation, no one can legally own another human being in Canada. Therefore, the abolition of slavery was an essential signpost in the history of human rights in this land and became a foundation for other movements for respect and human rights. To believe, therefore, that Emancipation Day is essential only for Black people is both shortsighted and wrong. The event's implications stretch far beyond Black people and touch the very heart of what it means to live in a free society.

The American philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Suppose the commemoration of Emancipation Day continues to be an inconvenient observance for us in Canada. In that case, it stands to reason that we as a society run the risk of once again subjecting persons to other actions of dehumanization. It is for this reason primarily why it cannot remain an inconvenience, and it should be commemorated and acknowledged.

—Rev. Dr. Paul Douglas Walfall is the minister of the Fort Saskatchewan Community of Faith in the Northern Spirit Regional Council.


The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.