The International Day for the Remembrance of Slavery and its Abolition: Remembering and Teaching about African Enslavement in Ontario Classrooms
Do you remember the days of slavery? My brother feels it, including my sisters too. Some of us survive, showing them that we are still alive. Do you remember the days of slavery?
- Lyrics from Do You Remember the Days of Slavery?, Burning Spear
August 23rd is the International Day for the Remembrance of Slavery and its Abolition. August 23rd was chosen to mark the International Day for the Remembrance of Slavery and its Abolition because on that day in 1791, the Haitian Revolution was initiated by Africans seeking an end to their enslavement.
The day is meant to commemorate remember to the approximately 10 million men, women and children who were kidnapped and sent to the New World to be enslaved. It is also a time to remember the countless Africans who perished during the Maafa, the horrendous 400-year slave trade of African bodies, and to remember how enslaved Africans resisted their forced conditions and fought for their freedom.
People of African descent were dispersed throughout the colonies of the European empires, forced to labour without pay for the purpose of increasing personal profits and building the wealth of European empires. Canada, as a French and then British colony, was very much part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. European colonists bought and sold African peoples in this country. Canada is also connected to the Transatlantic Slave Trade through the trade of timber, salted cod, and other items with slaveholding Caribbean colonies for slave-produced goods such as rum, molasses, tobacco, and sugar.
In classrooms, it’s not about marking the day (which is during the summer break) with students. The International Day for the Remembrance of Slavery and its Abolition is a needed reminder of the related topics needed to be taught throughout the school year and the many opportunities to do so. For the first time, slavery has been included in the newest Ontario Social Studies, History, and Geography curriculum (#ontsshg) as an optional topic in grades 3, 4, 6, and 7. In these grades teachers can teach about the enslavement of Africans and First Nations peoples by French and British colonists in Canada. Law, History, and Social Science teachers in high schools can teach about the laws that supported as well as dismantled the institution of slavery in Canada and internationally.
In teaching about slavery, teachers should be careful not to misrepresent to students that Black history begins with enslavement. Mutabaruka, a Jamaican dub poet artist eloquently stated that enslavement “interrupted African history.” The removal of productive people from African societies stagnated their development and changed the trajectory of African history. This means that Africa’s rich and complex history before the Transatlantic Slave Trade should also be taught. In grade 4 under the strand “Early Societies, 3000 BCE – 1500 BCE” there are several African kingdoms that can be incorporated such as the kingdoms of Kush, Nubia, Aksum, Great Zimbabwe, Ghana, Mali, and Egypt. Additionally, Ancient Egypt should be correctly presented as an African civilization.
The African Diaspora is a result of the forced global dispersal of Black peoples as a consequence of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and connections to Blacks in places such as Canada, South America, England, the United States, the Caribbean and the continent of Africa can be made in classrooms. Folklore from Africans around the world can be read in language classes. Cultural celebrations of Blacks, such as Emancipation Day, can be highlighted in Grade 2 and other grades. When teaching “Canada’s Interactions with the Global Community” in grade 6, the trade relationships between Canada and African and Caribbean nations can be explored. The various migration streams of Africans into Canada can be included in many grades.
The courageous stories of Africans who resisted their enslavement in Canada can also be explored. Henry Lewis, enslaved by William Jarvis, Toronto’s first sheriff and namesake of Jarvis Street and Jarvis Collegiate ran away to New York in 1798 to emancipate himself. In 1793 Chloe Cooley screamed to protest her sale across the Niagara River. Fourteen years after an unsuccessful attempt to free herself and her son, Nancy sought her freedom in the courts of New Brunswick in 1800. Peggy and her children, enslaved in early Toronto by provincial administrator Peter Russell, employed various resistance tactics to the chagrin of their owner. Betty took her baby son and fled the Belleville area in 1818 after exchanging hands several times. Black men fought on behalf of the British in the War of 1812 to secure their freedom and that of their fellow bondsmen and bondswomen. Thousands of enslaved African Americans took the perilous journey to find liberty in Canada. Using these stories, connections can be made to the ways in which Blacks have fought for freedom and for their human rights in our country and places in the world for 200 years.
The related issues of colonialism and racism must also be addressed in classrooms because the manifestation of anti-Black racism is fostered by the legacy of slavery. We can’t hope to work towards true social justice and equity if we don’t teach about the systems, attitudes, and practices that operate at the root of inequality and exclusion and persists today in our society.
Teachers can share narratives that capture the resilience, genius, bravery, tenacity, fortitude, and contributions of African Canadians and people of African descent around the world in spite of racial oppression and discrimination. Using Diasporic narratives can create a fuller picture of Black history in Canada.
Consistent incorporation of Black history - throughout the year and not just in February - over many grades can accomplish a balanced presentation of the many experiences of Africans worldwide. In my presentation at the Routes to Freedom Conference held in Ottawa in March 2008 to commemorate the 200-year anniversary of the end of the abolition of the trade of slaves across the Atlantic, I spoke to the importance of teaching about Canadian slavery:
This commemoration presents a timely opportunity for the school system to shift from retaining the African Canadian story to the periphery to making long lasting, impactful changes that would centre it in Canadian history. We as educators are encouraged to teach diversity and promote the acceptance of others which must be extended to the African Canadian experience.
Check my list of resources that can be used in the classroom in my Resources pages.