– Marcus Garvey, The Future as I See It, 1922
August 1st, 2014 is a significant date in African history for two reasons. It marks the 180th anniversary of the legislation that abolished the enslavement of Africans throughout British colonies. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Universal Negro Improvement Association by the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. This occasion is deserving of a longer-than-usual blog post to unearth the relationship between both anniversaries and their relevance to today.
Emancipation Day Celebrations
After receiving Royal Assent in August 28, 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act took effect on August 1, 1834, ending the brutal practice of African enslavement throughout the British empire. However, it took until August 1, 1838 for former slaves in some Caribbean islands to be fully freed. The passage of this monumental piece of legislation was truly an occasion for celebration – almost 1 million Africans were freed in the Caribbean, South Africa, and a small number here in Canada.
Montreal was one of the first sites of Emancipation Day commemorations held on the very day the Act took effect. Since then the recognition of Emancipation Day has become a remarkable display of African-Canadian tradition and spiritual restoration nation-wide. The day was celebrated across Canada in many villages, towns and city centres. Black men and women of diverse backgrounds along with White and Aboriginal supporters commemorated Emancipation Day through participation in street parades, church services, lectures, dinners, dances, and other activities. I detail the history, the features, organization, and evolution of the annual commemoration, and the celebration’s links to Caribana in my two books Talking About Freedom: Celebrating Emancipation Day in Canada and Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada.
The passage of the Slavery Abolition Act was just the beginning of the global movement, including here in Canada, for full rights and equality for people of African descent. The struggle for human rights began immediately after emancipation. Emancipation Day was a major celebration, but was also used to mobilize people in the fight to end African slavery in the United States and as a platform to bring awareness to the many social and political barriers faced by African Canadians well into the twentieth century – segregation in housing and public education, access to post-secondary programs, exercising the right to vote, fair employment opportunities, the right to purchase government-owned land, the right to be served in barbershops and restaurants, and the right to be accommodated in hotels. Even in celebrating Emancipation Day Blacks faced discrimination as invited guests and visitors could not stay or eat in some establishments in cities such as St. Catharines, Windsor, and Dresden.
Celebrating Emancipation Day continues today in places like Owen Sound, Windsor, Dresden, and in Toronto where for the second year, Itah Sadu and A Different Booklist will host the Freedom Train on the TTC subway on the night of July 31st to symbolically ring in freedom at midnight.
The Universal Negro Improvement Association
Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey and his wife Amy Ashwood formed the UNIA on August 1, 1914 in Jamaica because of the date’s historical significance. Garvey viewed Emancipation Day as “a sacred and holy day...a day of blessed memory.” The aim of the worldwide organization was to further the human rights agenda through the promotion of racial uplift through Black agency. Garvey and his movement had a strong influence on African Canadians.
During the 1920s and the 1930s fifteen UNIA branches opened in Canada. Garvey established strong ties with Canada early on in his Black nationalist movement. African Canadians, especially those who emigrated from the West Indies during this time, were drawn to his philosophy and were eager to support the expansion of the UNIA. The first Canadian branch of the UNIA opened in 1918 in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. The Toronto branch opened up in 1919 and was visited by Garvey. By the early 1930s there were five branches in the Maritimes, one in Montreal, Quebec, four in Ontario, three in Alberta, and two in British Columbia. All UNIA branches opened halls that served as political meeting places as well as community and social centres. This was an important benefit to members of Black communities because they often experienced segregation and were not welcome in White venues.
Garvey spent some time in Canada in the summers of 1936, 1937, and 1938. Due to legal troubles stemming from the operation of the Black Star Line and eventual deportation from the United States, Garvey decided to use Canada as a base for UNIA business during those three years. UNIA regional conferences were held in Toronto in 1936 and 1937. In 1938 the eighth and last International Convention of Negro Peoples of the World was also hosted in Toronto. These gatherings were attended by supporters in Canada and from the United States. Garvey also toured several places in Canada and gave speeches in various places including Toronto. While speaking at a church in Windsor on September 25, 1937 Garvey remarked,
“The purpose of the U.N.I.A. is to emancipate and our primary duty is to emancipate
your minds because it is the mind that makes the man, that directs him. It is the mind
that makes the man, the race; and all that you see material, artistic and otherwise of
nature is man's mind working upon Nature.”
The words from his Sydney, Nova Scotia speech delivered on October 1, 1937 influenced Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”:
“We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might
free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The
man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be a slave of the other man
who uses his mind, because man is related to man under all circumstances for good or ill.”
The Toronto UNIA branch organized the annual Emancipation Day celebrations in St. Catharines, Ontario called the “Big Picnic” from the 1920s to the 1950s. Garvey addressed the huge crowd that gathered to celebrate Emancipation Day at Lakeside Park in 1938. While in Toronto in 1937 Garvey launched the School of African Philosophy to train future UNIA leaders, where he taught summer classes on Black history and. Garvey returned to London, England where he died of stroke on June 10, 1940.
Marcus Garvey’s philosophy resonated with many in the African Diaspora. He encouraged Blacks to be proud of their African heritage and inspired many Black nationalist activists to advance the Pan-African unity movement. Garvey called for Africans to emancipate themselves from bondage in many forms – economic, political, and psychological.
His lasting legacy is still evident in the names of the buildings, streets, and places of learning that memorialize his name. In Canada, the Toronto, Montreal, and Glace Bay branches of the UNIA remain active today on a smaller scale. The Marcus Garvey Centre for Leadership and Enterprise was established near the Jane and Finch community of Toronto in 1996 in his honour. In 2007 the Marcus Garvey Centre for Unity opened in North Edmonton, Alberta to serve Jamaican Canadians and other residents of that community. Marcus Garvey Day has been commemorated annually in Toronto on his birthday on August 17th since 1993.
Due to the efforts of African-Canadian individuals and community organizations along with other groups, human rights was and is very much part of the national policies of Canada. Basic civil rights and fundamental human rights and freedoms have been enshrined, protected, and enforced by numerous pieces of legislation such as provincial and federal human rights codes and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
More Work to Do
For me, recognizing August 1st, 2014 is as much about marking these two milestones as it is about charting a future course because complete freedom and equality has yet to be realized. This is evidenced in the direct historical connections with the present-day social conditions of Black and Aboriginal peoples both once enslaved and colonized, including here in what is now Canada. Both groups have been criminalized and experience racial profiling, over policing and high incarceration rates. They experience discrimination in the labour market that result in high unemployment and under-employment rates regardless of their levels of education. The Canadian education system fails to reflect the faces and experiences of these groups, resulting in high dropout rates.
So why should and how can Emancipation Day, Marcus Garvey, and the UNIA be covered in Canadian elementary and secondary classrooms? In interrogating the pursuit of social justice and political activism with learners, these topics present opportunities to critically explore the history of civic engagement and the evolution of the human rights movement in our country. Black students can link themselves to a history of social activism that was taking place across the African Diaspora. Examining the development and evolution of a Black cultural tradition in Canada that spans almost 200 years situates people of African descent firmly in the nation building foundation of the country. These stories and images must be shared with students of all backgrounds to foster a deeper awareness and appreciation of the experiences and contributions of Blacks in Canada and enable critical learners to identify the legacy of racism that affects us today. Students can learn about the importance of united efforts to combat racial inequality to effect legal and social change. Young people can also critically reflect on what human rights and freedom means today, identify who experiences restricted freedoms, and how they can participate in moving Canada towards full human rights for all of its citizens “so that one day, future generations will be able to celebrate true freedom.”
Honouring the memory of Emancipation Day and the UNIA involves employing education in furthering the cause of freedom, just as the freedom activists of the past knew this importance.
Slavery Abolition Act, 1833 article by Natasha Henry
Marcus Garvey Speech delivered in Windsor, Ontario on September 25, 1937
The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, volume VII edited by Robert A. Hill, 1990.
The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, edited by Amy Jacques-Garvey, 1977.
Blacks in Canadian Human Rights and Equity History timeline, poster, and lesson plans
"The Universal Negro Improvement Association" video clip in Slavery: A Canadian Story in the Hymn to Freedom series (Available on Learn 360).
African Diaspora by Natasha Henry (Forthcoming in 2014)