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Tracking the profits of Slavery in Canada in the post-Emancipation era

In February this year, B.C. resident, Guy Heywood in tracing his family tree discovered that the wealth that created North Vancouver in B.C. came from the slave trade. His forebears from the 1750s to 1780s amassed a family fortune of some ₤1.25-million by transporting slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean.

Canada is observing Emancipation from Slavery for the second year on August 1st.

Activist Rosemary Sadlier is one of the leading voices that advocated for the country to formally circle the date in the calendar on which Britain, in 1834 freed all African slaves in its colonies.

The Order of Ontario recipient has worked for over three decades promoting the role and contributions of Black Canadians to the country.

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There are many jurisdictions where Emancipation Day has been declared as a public holiday. The first independent country in the world to give that designation to August 1st, was Trinidad and Tobago in 1985. While it is not a public holiday in Canada, Sadlier sees the date as important in the context of ongoing forensic examination of where the profits and wealth created by slavery in Canada exist today.

Sadlier says, “The wealth from slavery is everywhere” and not just with the people who are descendants of slave ship owners.

“The reality is the overarching basis; foundational systems of this country are all implicated with the slave trade. It percolates and is interconnected with every system that we have. Our banking system, our insurance systems, our educational systems, our religious systems. What is it not a part of?”

Toronto recognized Emancipation in 1994. The city of Ottawa marked the date in 1999. Provincial recognition came in Ontario in 2008, and finally in 2021 MPs unanimously voted on the Emancipation observance which can trace its celebration in Canada as far back as  1862.

Sadlier, who was also instrumental in advocating for Canada to celebrate Black History Month gives numerous talks to schools and community groups and has authored books like “Leading the Way: Black Women in Canada” (1994) and “The Kids’ Book of Black Canadian History” (2003). She is a contributing author to Black History: Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas (2019).

Sadlier says the ideas she has encountered include that “there were no black people” in Canada.

“That black people did not exist. If they existed they were a recent phenomenon and had no entitlement to anything that was part of this country and were essentially unwelcome guests. So Black History Month was basically a way of saying,”Boom. We are here. And we have been here. That’s why there is a Black History Month.”

Sadlier’s work highlights the role of black contributors like the No. 2 Construction Battalion, a military expedition force from the First World War that was not allowed to fight. They were tasked with a supporting role in the war, digging trenches and building shelter for soldiers. When they returned to Canada, they continued to face racism.

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Sadlier is one of the people whose advocacy has moved the government to offer a formal apology for the treatment meted out to these soldiers.

Sadlier reflects that having Emancipation Day is another step in coming to the reality of African Slavery in Canada.

“We’ve been honouring people who were slaveholders and slave owners. We have been benefitting. Our institutions were built upon the wealth that was generated by the slave trade; by the profitting of the sale of slaves. These are recognitions and levels of awareness that will increase over time.”

Sadlier concludes the observance of Emancipation Day in Canada means that “there is now recognition that “there was a point in time that there was slavery.”

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