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What is Emancipation Day (Aug 1) and How is it Connected to Carnival?

Emancipation Day in Canada is now official following a unanimous vote by members of parliament in March. Though the federal government is only now formally recognizing this day, Emancipation Day has long been celebrated in some variation throughout Canada. And, it’s long been a cherished holiday in other parts of the world colonized by Britain.

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Caribbean countries like Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados have been celebrating this day for generations, marking the emancipation of slavery in the Caribbean from British rule. One of the ways that people celebrated the emancipation of slavery in the Caribbean is through carnival, which is still hugely popular today. As Emancipation Day in Canada comes into infancy, what is the meaning behind Emancipation Day and how is this day connected to carnival?

What is Emancipation Day About?

Emancipation Day brought an end to slavery, but didn’t bring equality

August 1, the day when Emancipation Day is typically celebrated, is the day when slavery was officially abolished in British colonies, including Canada. This day marks when the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was passed, outlawing any buying, selling or owning of Blacks and other people of colour.

Though Emancipation Day in Canada is newly adopted in the mainstream, by no means is it a new concept here. In Owen Sound, for example, Emancipation Day has been celebrated in some fashion since 1862. Owen Sound was the farthest point on the north-end for the Underground Railroad which Blacks used as an escape route from slavery in the neighbouring United States. Owen Sound has long been hosting an Emancipation Festival to mark the occasion.

Meanwhile, in Windsor, Emancipation Day celebrations were held from the 1930s to the 1960s, with civil rights leaders and notable public figures making regular appearances. While Ontario has marked Emancipation Day since 2008 and has passed the official recognition into law this year, it’s a day Blacks have celebrated with significance for a very long time.

What is Emancipation Day in the Caribbean?

Though Emancipation Day in the Caribbean also celebrates when slavery was abolished, it also commemorates the fact that Black Caribbean nationals struggled to overcome slavery which, in fact, did not end due to the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act.

Despite rebellions throughout the early 19th century in Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica forcing the creation of the act, the exploitation of Blacks continued as certain policies disguised provisions and sentiments that held them back. Blacks were blocked from accessing land and were forced to settle for low-wage employment. While the celebrations for freedom were ample across former British colonies, they also recognized the long road to equality that Blacks were faced with post-slavery, fighting structural and industrialized racism that still permeates today’s society.

In 1985, Trinidad and Tobago became the first country to declare a national holiday celebrating the abolishment of slavery. In Jamaica, Emancipation Day was abolished following Independence in 1962, though it wasn’t officially recognized as a holiday at that time. That changed in 1998 after an extensive public campaign by Professor Rex Nettleford, leading to then prime minister, P.J. Patterson, declaring August 1 as a public holiday.

Caribbean countries celebrate Emancipation Day because of the profound belief that Black people are no one’s property and are an integral part of humanity. Emancipation Day in the Caribbean is an honor to the sacrifices that Black ancestors made for centuries to pave the way for the freedoms today’s generation enjoys. More significantly, it’s a reminder of the work that still needs to be done to make those forefathers proud, especially by curbing the violence and conflicts that still plague the region.

What is Carnival and Why is it Celebrated?

Carnival has been a globally popular celebration for generations

Carnival is a celebration that typically takes place over a few days before Lent. Blacks were banned from engaging in pre-Lenten festivals and masquerades, leading enslaved Africans to craft unique carnival performances and characters.

Carnival is a festival that celebrates countless cultural traditions tied to generational nuances. It’s celebrated in over 50 countries including Trinidad and Tobago, where it’s most popular, Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, Brazil, Spain and several others.

However, carnival celebrations are strongly tied to Emancipation Day. When the abolishment of slavery took place throughout the Caribbean, locals celebrated their newfound freedom thanks to their tireless work. They used carnival costumes, music and culture to celebrate life and what the future held, feeling like their freedom was more than legislative. Those cultural nuances have been passed down from generation to generation, being fondly celebrated throughout the Caribbean and the world every year.

When Was the First Carnival in Canada?

Carnival was first introduced to Canada in 1967 when Ontario held its first Caribana. This was the Canadian Caribbean community’s gift to Canada to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday. It has since grown into the largest street festival of its kind in North America, with millions turning out to watch the cultural festivities. It’s typically celebrated between the last weekend of July and the first weekend in August, when Emancipation Day and Civic Holiday take place.

Carnival is deep-rooted in Black culture and a celebration of overcoming the post-slavery strife they faced. Yet it also heralds the freedoms Blacks enjoy today while recognizing the inequities Blacks still encounter despite Diversity and Inclusion efforts. Learn more about Black culture and the barriers your Black employees and colleagues still face by scheduling a custom Tough Convos today.


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