“This is crazy,” I thought. “How could I not already know what it is?” ”
I started Googling and found that Emancipation Day just wasn’t recognized in popular culture. It’s certainly not clear what Caribana is like, although Caribana does occur in part because of the immediate cause of Emancipation Day: the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
Immediately, my colleagues at Emancipation Arts and I made a commitment to recognize and celebrate Emancipation Day every year – and FreeUp! was born. For our first event, we teamed up with UforChange to host an incredible evening of creative expression. A youth organization that provides young artists with the tools and skills to realize their creative aspirations, UforChange was the perfect partner to involve emerging artists in the celebration. We started with good vibes provided by DJ L’Oqenz, with space provided by The Theater Center, and with youthful creativity and curation, led by FreeUp! artistic director Khadijah Salawu.
“It’s a gift and a privilege to be a part of FreeUp !,” says Khadijah. “This is a day when we remember what our ancestors did for our freedom and what individuals do today to maintain our freedom, and it reminds us that we can support this through celebration, creative expression and personal development. We remember our agency to define what freedom means to us on our terms so that we can build a better future for ourselves and our community. ”
For me, FreeUp! has always been about creating a space and a platform to recognize our heritage and our heritage. By exploring what freedom means, by practicing expressing those meanings together each year, we seek to cultivate real freedom through the arts – and through the kind of deeper understanding that the arts can offer us.
From the start, FreeUp! honored a community member with our Freedom Fighter Award. At our inaugural event, we paid tribute to Rosemary Sadlier O. Ont, who led the Emancipation Day mission to be recognized in Ontario and Canada. Without Rosemary, we wouldn’t be here. His work exposed me to the rich and diverse culture of Black Canadians. (This year, the award – now named the Rosemary Sadlier Award – will go to Jully Black, Canada’s R & B / soul queen.)
Under Sadlier’s leadership, the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) was able to celebrate its 30th anniversary with the passage of Bill 111, the Emancipation Day Act, 2008, which recognized on Emancipation Day in Ontario… and only in Ontario, despite Sadlier’s efforts at the national level.
Recognizing Emancipation Day is a way for Canada to recognize – both formally and informally – the legacy of Black and Indigenous Canadians, honoring their inextricable role in the formation of this country and its continuing achievements. This is why I asked my big sister Annamie Paul to help me launch a parliamentary petition, a petition calling on the Government of Canada to finally proclaim August 1 Emancipation Day in all of its jurisdictions. This petition to recognize the day nationally was recently submitted to the House of Commons and, if you are a Canadian citizen or resident, you can sign it until August 22, 2020 at 10:58 a.m. EST. (Personally, I think it should be a full vacation, but one step at a time.)
Ontario took the lead in recognizing Emancipation Day in 2008, and it is high time we recognized it nationally. The International Decade for People of African Descent provides the perfect opportunity to permanently recognize the legacy of slavery and the achievements of many generations of Canadians from once enslaved peoples and individuals.
In 2020, often marginalized voices are being heard in new ways. This is the time to face our common challenges and struggles – this is why this is the year of the celebration of Emancipation and Liberation Day.
Unprecedented times give us the opportunity to explore what we value as a nation in Canada. What are our celebrations like? What is it worth celebrating?
Let’s celebrate Emancipation Day, yes, commemorate it eternally as the blossoming of humanity that it represents – and let us also remember our primary freedoms, freedoms that cannot be given by any government or taken by no man, quite higher freedoms and equally worthy of celebration. Not only to preserve and protect, but actively cultivate our expressions of these basic human freedoms – perhaps more than any social conflict deserves our common attention today. Freedom of speech is fundamental and underlies so many other freedoms, so let’s celebrate it accordingly and create beauties that celebrate freedom itself. This is what FreeUp! is all about.
Let’s celebrate together. Let us listen to new generations of voices and work with them to help us define a better future, just as we always listen carefully to the voices of generations past.
I believe this is a great invigorating spark of a year, 2020, and my ongoing goal for the annual FreeUp! serve as one of those stable torches, connecting generations and serving to illuminate our common paths to freedom. It is time for all Canadians to know Emancipation Day, to be invited to celebrate it with those of us who already do.
Protect it, proclaim it, explore it, create it – whatever you do with it, ask yourself:
What does freedom mean to you?
Log in to FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2020 this Saturday, August 1 at 1 p.m. ET on CBC Gem and YouTube.