This past weekend is what I always called the "August Bank Holiday", the long weekend in the middle of summer. In Toronto and area, it is also known as Simcoe Day after Lord John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant governor of Canada West, now Ontario. In other parts of Canada there are many other designations for the day.
In 2008, the Ontario government also recognized it as Emancipation Day. This holiday has been celebrated in south western Ontario for 175 years, particularly among the African Canadian community in that area. It is a celebration of the British Emancipation proclamation of 1833 when slavery was made illegal in Britain and all British colonies beginning in 1834. This laid the groundwork for the eventual escape of fugitive slaves from the United States along the Underground Railroad.
It is appropriqate that this is the same day as Simcoe Day as Lord Simcoe was an abolitionist and one of the first laws passed in Canada West under his administration was a partial abolition of slavery, in 1793. He pressed for this law after learning of the sale of a Canadian slave, Chloe Cooley, back into the United States. Under this law, no new slaves could be brought into the country and the children of slaves would gain free status when they turned 25 years old. Freed slaves had to be finacially secured by their former owners. A few years later, in 1810, his attorney general abolished all slavery in Canada West prior to the British general emancipation, in 1833.
The British Emancipation Proclamation declared that a slave would be freed and given citizen rights under the law as soon as they stepped on British (Canadian) soil.
It is interesting to note this is the same period in history when the slaves of Haiti rose up in rebellion and defeated the French military of Napoleon and established the Republic of Haiti. One can imagine how nervous the Americans were with Canada to the North legally opposed to slavery and Haiti to the south with a recent successful slave revolt.
This was the time in the United States that the Fugitive Slave Laws , 1793 and 1850, were passed in the United States and the Supreme Court upheald them. Part of these laws required law enforcement in the free states to return slaves, who had run away to the North, to their "rightful owners". There were also bounty hunters that captured escaped slaves and killed them or returned them for a fee. Thus for slaves to just flee to a free state there was no security. They lived under a threat of being captured and returned to their master. As a result, fugitive slaves "looked to the North Star" and sought out freedom in Canada. Fugitive slaves found their way into British territories which are now part of Canada: Ontaro, Quebec, New Bruswick, Nova Scotia and British Columbia. The greatest number came to Ontario through Ohio crossing at Detroit and through New York state crossing at Lewiston, New York.
One of the most famous fugitive slaves was Josiah Henson who founded the Dawn Settlement near Dresden, Ontario. He became the inspiration for the book , Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was very influential in the United States in growing the abolishionist movement.
I love this new statue in Lewiston, New York. It was just officially opened last year. It shows a slave family being help to cross the Niagara River. The man handing the child to the woman is a depiction of Josiah Tyron the volunteer Lewsiton "station master" on the underground railroad. He under the cover of darkness rowed many former slaves to freedom. He was known as a quiet, humble and religious man. Like so many, he defied the law and risked himself to support the cause that so many Americans saw as just, the aiding of fugitive slaves in their flight into Canada.
The woman pointing to Canada is a depiction of Laura Eastman, a character in the novel "Freedom Crossing." which I have learned is read each year by many school children.
The far shore is Canada. One can only imagine the excitement and the hope with freedom so close, only a short row across the river.
As one who is fascinated with the similarities and differences between Canada and the United States, this bit of history is very telling. Canada was not always free of slavery. There were efforts to enslave the indians but they proved to be too valuable in the fur trade. Also Canada had few industries in which slaves would be useful . Most of settlers in Canada were small landowners, or fishermen. It would have been very expensive to keep slaves in our more challenging climate. Such were some of the reason why slavey did not get institutionalized here.
After the American Revolutionary war, United Empire Loyalists were encouraged to come to Canada and get re-established under the British crown. Some of these had slaves. Freedmen also were welcome as there was need for settlers. As many as 100,000 African Americans came. These earlier black immigrants were ready to assist the fugitive slaves that were to follow.
It is a quirk of history the John Graves Simcoe came to administer Canada West, the area being organized to accommodate the influx to Loyalists. He left a great legacy upon Canada including his opposition to slavery.
The fact that after 1833, Britain would not honour any extradition of former slaves to the US was a great legal milestone. It meant that a slave just had to reach Canadian territory and he was welcomed and protected by the law of the land. It is no wonder that slaves risked all to find freedom and a life in Canada.
Life was not always easy for African Canadians for prejudice and racism existed and still exists, in Canada . There have been times of great injustice against minorities in Canada but over the years, Canada has learned toleration of all ethnic group. It has now become part of our identity to enjoy and celebrate multiculturalism within our country sharing in the cultural gifts of all Canadians.
Canada need to relearn more of the story of African Americans coming to Canada. Their story is one of courage, hard work and remarkable success. In the early years, many young son's and daughter of former slaves went to to become doctors, clergymen, small business men. Many returned to fight in the civil war on the Union side and many after the civil war returned to the United States to find family and friends in the hope of a new life after the war.
I am amazed of the power of the mythic vision of what the United States can be that draws so many to it, even former slaves wanted to return. Some stayed in Canada and made a great contribution, in subsequent generations they were joined by others of African descent from the Caribbean, Africa, South American and more recently Haiti.
I hope this renewed and expanded holiday in Ontario, Emancipation Day, grows and finds acceptance, as a day to remember those early days when Canada was a refuge for fugitive slaves.