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Leading voice reflects on Black History Month

As one of the leading voices in Canada that advocated for Black History Month to be designated, and champion of Aug. 1 being observed as Emancipation Day, Rosemary Sadlier, O. Ont., is reflecting on the gains that have been made and the steps that still need to be taken.

The social activist, researcher and writer says she is still questioning a lot of things even though overall she is happy that BHM is taking place. She reiterates the rationale for her advocating “at every level of government” for the month to be commemorated.

“I knew that it was a way of symbolically cementing the reality that there are Black people in this country and that we have a history in this country – because it helps you remember that you might need to spend a moment to be mindful about the contributions and achievements of people of African heritage in this country.”

She qualifies that by saying it may sound very basic to people who are in a large Black community, but it holds significance for parts of Canada where there is not a critical mass of Black people.

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Her scholarship includes several books notably Harriet Tubman: Freedom Seeker, Freedom Leader, Black History: Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas, contributions in The Kids Book of Black Canadian History and Leading The Way: Black Women In Canada, among others.

Sadlier celebrates her most recent efforts to have Thomas Peters who was a Black pioneer in the Maritimes be recognized as a person of national historic significance. Peters escaped Slavery in North Carolina and fought with the British Loyalists against the Americans in the battle for independence. He rose to the rank of sergeant. Peters, his wife and children were among some 3500 people that the British relocated to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick after the war.

Of that number some 1200 of these people were Black and Peters encouraged them to relocate to Sierra Leone where they set up Freetown. This in the aftermath of being disappointed by the way the British had treated them after the war.

Sadlier looks at the reason that Peters was frustrated with the British and likens it to the promises of immigration.

“What was very obvious very quickly was that White loyalists got lots and Black loyalists did not. And he was somebody who was fighting for Black loyalists to get what they were promised. Not more than, just what they were promised, which I think really reflects for some people the story of immigration too. There’s the idea of what you might get and then there’s the reality of what you do get.”

Sadlier says she has met with Canadians who are ancestors of this historical figure.

“It’s been awesome to see the reaction – because there are people who know they are the descendents of those Caribbean people who ended up being Canadian people, who ended up being African people and who then ended up coming back to Canada. And I think it’s also just important because we tend to forget to memorialize – to honour people who have done things.”

Next on the honours list, Sadlier is doing some heavy lifting to have a commemorative bust established for Canada’s first Black lieutenant governor of Ontario, Lincoln Alexander. She also sees Lincoln Alexander Day – January 21, which was given Royal Assent in 2014 as being a possible starting point to herald in Black History Month every February. She says this will correspond with the manner in which Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 15 fits in the American calendar.

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“So technically, in the United States, Martin Luther King Day starts the Black history season. And in Canada we have not remembered that we have this day (Lincoln Alexander Day) – the only Black person in the country that has an official day named after them – or in their honour.”

Finally, Sadlier sees the greater significance of observing Aug. 1 in Canada as Emancipation Day over Juneteenth – June 19. She says Aug. 1, 1834 granted freedom to enslaved Africans in British colonies including Canada, and this is much earlier than June 19, 1865 which refers to the Texas announcement.

“Remember to celebrate Emancipation Day because as a British controlled colony, we had freedom way earlier than what Juneteenth marks. And our freedom came about in this country – Aug. 1, 1834. Juneteenth was later.”

Sadlier is currently working on another book to add to her seven titles already in publication. She sees the importance of Black history observances as needing to transcend the plethora of activities and events that are held in February. She quips, “On March 1st, I will still be Black.”

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