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NWT’s Black Advocacy Coalition celebrates Emancipation Day in Canada


August 1 marks the first official Emancipation Day in Canada, honouring the day when the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 ended slavery in the British Empire.

For nearly two hundred years, thousands of Black and Indigenous people were enslaved across the country. Though slavery was abolished in Canada by 1834, the systemic racism and discrimination that originally made it possible has persisted in Canadian society.

The NWT’s Black Advocacy Coalition up North (BACupNorth) was founded last June following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police to advocate on behalf of the northern Black community and educate people on systemic racism and its impacts.

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Cabin Radio spoke to some of the members about what the day means to them, and the importance of learning and understanding this history.

Ambe Chenemu, president of BACupNorth:

“Emancipation is recognition that slavery happened in Canada and is some sort of a ratification of what Black and Indigenous peoples have always said: when it comes to slavery, there was slavery in Canada, and Canada had a huge role to play. It’s not just passing the buck, saying that slavery only happened in the US. To me, it’s Canada acknowledging that history, and I think it’s the first day for any Black or Indigenous person in Canada to putting that chapter behind. Now that we are at that point, what’s the next step forward?

Emancipation Day is 200 years late. In 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act came into force, but it’s taken Canada almost 200 years to even admit that there was slavery in Canada. So, it’s a great feeling to know that we’re starting to recognize and acknowledge that dark history and the dark legacy that slavery has left in our history, but also moving the conversation forward.

Ambe Chenemu speaks at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Yellowknife in July 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Ambe Chenemu speaks at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Yellowknife in July 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Are we free? Are we still not slaves to the system? We feel marginalized, we feel disenfranchised, right?

We’ve talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, we talked about anti-Black racism, we talked about discrimination…Black people are still living in poverty, in low-income housing. We are almost the majority of the prison system in Canada, even though only about three percent of the population. In a lot of ways, we’re not anywhere close to being free.

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“We have a great vibrant Black community of here in the Northwest Territories. We can come together and start having the conversation, here in the territory, about what emancipation means to the Black community.”

Ambe Chenemu

Cynthia Mufandaedza, Yellowknife city councillor:

“As a member of the Black community, I feel that the first step to Reconciliation with the Black community is the acknowledgement of the enslavement of the African people and their descendants. This first step is what we hope is the beginning of a healing process and the government’s efforts to understand and address the racism and inequality our people have experienced for generations. We cannot address racism unless we acknowledge this past.  

This day is important for Canadians to be aware that Black and Indigenous peoples were once enslaved on the land that is now Canada and to acknowledge that those who fought enslavement were pivotal in shaping our society to be as diverse as it is today.

“We owe it to the next generation to speak and teach this truth.  We cannot teach the younger generation why the battle continues for Black Lives Matter today if they do not understand that our history had dictated that Black Lives did not matter!” 

Cynthia Mufandaedza
Cynthia Mufandaedza stands in Cabin Radio's reception area in September 2018
Cynthia Mufandaedza stands in Cabin Radio’s reception area in September 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

It is my hope that, each August 1, NWT residents and all Canadians will take the time to reflect, educate and engage in the ongoing fight against anti-Black racism and discrimination.  

The NWT residents have in the past stood with the various movements to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter. Now acknowledging this day is part of us healing together as a community.   August 1st being Emancipation Day is a new dawn and it will help teach Canadians about the history of African people and how they have shaped the history of Canada.

Indeed, Black lives matter! On this Day we celebrate the strength and perseverance of Black communities in Canada.”

Inemesit Graham, founding member of BACupNorth:

“It’s important to recognize our history because those who don’t know about history are doomed to repeat. It is important…just like recognizing the residential school system, to recognize that Canada was it was built on abuses and the recent genocide of Black and Indigenous people. To have context for the world that we live in today is to have context for anti-Black racism. You have to understand history and why it’s still important to…understand systemic racism and the serious ways in which it shows up in people’s lives.

Inemesit Graham, founding member of BACupNorth. Photo: Submitted

“There has been nothing in the history of the world that has been the same as chattel slavery. Black people were seen as subhuman. They were taken from their country.”

Inemesit Graham

Black people, their history was completely taken from them. Many black people in North America and the Caribbean in don’t know their history beyond the 1800s. They don’t know where they originated. They don’t know their heritage because that was what chattel slavery took from them.

That presents a lot of intergenerational trauma. That’s something that passes through generations, and it’s something that affects how people are able to show up today.”

Jason Snaggs, CEO of YKDFN and member of BACupNorth

“It’s a very auspicious day because it recognizes Canada’s collective past and history. In terms of slavery, it’s a marker…to look at how far we’ve come as Black people in Canada, and how far Canada needs to go when it comes to the legacy of slavery, racism, and prejudice that is currently in effect today. It’s a time to celebrate how far we’ve come, but to continue to reflect on how we can change the narrative when it comes to racism – not just for Black people and Afro-Canadians, but also our brothers and sisters who are Indigenous and those in the other racialized communities.

Prior to Africans being treated as property and shipped over from Africa – third of them died along the way – there was slavery of Indigenous peoples in Canada. And at the end of the day, none of the families or people were ever compensated.

It is important for us to bring awareness to this day, and BACupNorth is that vehicle in the Northwest Territories, in collaboration with our Indigenous partners and other minority groups within the territory…to ensure that we eliminate the vestiges of the legacy from which it came.

Jason Snaggs, CEO of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and a member of BACupNorth. Photo: Submitted

“When we see someone in power or someone having achieved something from the Black community, it’s like a big first. Here we are in the 21st century, and that should not be.”

Jason Snaggs

Everyone should have the same exact equal opportunities and representation at all levels of society.”

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