(Published in the Globe and Mail, August 3, 2018.)
If a nation reveals itself in what it celebrates, what does it say about Canada that the holiday at the height of our precious summer goes by a welter of official names no one uses? Or that those names are banal or parochial? And what should we make of the fact that the holiday coincides with a world-changing moral triumph – yet, few Canadians know anything about the event, fewer know that this country was intimately involved, and the obvious connection between the triumph and the holiday is almost never made?
On calendars, it’s called “Civic Holiday.” Most Canadians call it “the August 1st holiday” or “the August long weekend.” It is a nullity where a celebration should be. Many legislators have tried to change that.
Typically imaginative officials in New Brunswick dubbed the holiday “New Brunswick Day.” Their colleagues in Saskatchewan devoted much study and meditation to the matter before settling on “Saskatchewan Day.” In Alberta, the holiday is officially known as “Heritage Day,” which has the utility of “Fill-in-the-Blank Day” while conserving hyphens. There are more provincial names but only experienced civil servants can read the full list without falling asleep.
City councils have been a little bolder, particularly in Ontario, but the names chosen are uniformly those of some grandee selected for entirely local reasons – John By in Ottawa or Benjamin Vaughan in, of course, Vaughan. The parochialism is so absurd it’s hard not to think of Mayor Quimby declaring the first Monday in August “Jebediah Springfield Day.”
Toronto’s own Jebediah Springfield is John Graves Simcoe, so naturally Toronto calls the August holiday “Simcoe Day.” But however accidentally, Toronto at least glanced in the right direction.
John Graves Simcoe was a British officer who fought with distinction in the American revolution. In one engagement, Simcoe scattered some rebels and – this is likely apocryphal but let’s not waste a good story – ordered his soldiers not to fire on three fleeing men, one of whom was the future first president of the United States. More reliably, we know that Simcoe also attempted, unsuccessfully, to raise a company of black Loyalists. This reflected, in part, his political sympathies. John Graves Simcoe despised slavery.
In 1792, when Simcoe was appointed the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, the colony that would become Ontario, he made a vow. “The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada,” he declared, “under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America, or Europe.”
In 1793, Peter Martin, a Loyalist veteran and free African-Canadian, appeared before Simcoe’s executive council to accuse a Niagara man of binding a slave named Chloe Cooley, transporting her across the river to the United States, and selling her to an American. There was nothing they could do. Cooley’s sale was perfectly legal.
Simcoe responded by passing an Act Against Slavery. It freed no one, at least not immediately. Simcoe needed the support of wealthy slave-owning families – slavery had grown in Upper Canada since the American Revolution and roughly half the council members possessed slaves – which made quick abolition impossible. Instead, the act banned the importation of slaves. And it ordered that the children of slaves be freed on or before their 25th birthdays. In this way, the law wouldn’t take “property” from slave-owners but it would, slowly and inexorably, extinguish slavery. Slave-owners resented this “piece of chicanery,” as one called it, but they conceded the fight.
It was a historic achievement. While Britain itself had no slavery – thanks to a 1772 court ruling all people were free in the absence of legislation empowering slavery – it was endemic in British colonies around the world and British ships sailing from Liverpool were the main conduit of the Atlantic slave trade. In 1793, the campaign against slavery, led by the legendary William Wilberforce, was growing rapidly but it was still very new. Anti-slavery legislation had never passed anywhere in the British Empire. Simcoe’s Act was a global milestone.
In 1807, the anti-slavery movement finally succeeded in getting Britain to ban the slave trade and turn the cannons of the Royal Navy toward the slave forts and ships packed with human cargo. The final step was taken with the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which freed slaves across the British Empire when it came into force one year later. The historic day was Aug. 1.
In Jamaica, Barbados, and other British colonies where there was widespread slavery, Aug. 1, 1834, was known and celebrated as “Emancipation Day.” Coming almost three decades before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, it was the tipping point when the sentiments of humanity turned against the ancient practice of humans treating others as chattels. It’s no exaggeration to say that Emancipation Day is one of the most important dates in history.
Given how central human rights are to Canadians’ ideals and sense of collective identity – the Charter of Rights tops surveys about the relative importance of national symbols – there is a nearly perfect fit between the treasured holiday on the first Monday in August and Emancipation Day. That the connection hasn’t been made official is odd. That the connection isn’t even recognized, and there is no movement to make it official, is bizarre.
Historical ignorance is too simple an explanation. After all, the story of Simcoe and slavery does surface in the media from time to time. I suspect the more fundamental problem is one of historical perspective.
If we view Canadian history narrowly as the story of what happened within the borders of present-day Canada, what Simcoe did is laudable but mostly inconsequential. There weren’t many slaves in Upper Canada. The slow extinction of slavery changed little.
Only if we see Simcoe’s Act broadly – within the context of the British anti-slavery movement and the vast power and influence Britain had in the 19th century – does it appear momentous. Only then is it an important chapter in a dramatic story that culminates in a world-changing day. Only then does Emancipation Day become an expression of Canadian ideals.
Unfortunately, we routinely do not take that wider perspective. A much narrower view predominates. For that, we can thank Pierre Berton’s generation.
In the Canada where Berton went to school, to be Canadian was to be British. Classrooms drilled students in British history — “repeat after me, Edward IV, Edward V, Richard III …” – and treated Canadian events as footnotes. As part of the nationalist project of constructing a separate Canadian identity, writers such as Berton narrowed their focus. Canadian history was what happened within Canada and what was done by Canadians. The rest is foreign.
It was probably a stage we had to go through. But it was costly. It diminished figures like John Graves Simcoe and events such as the passage of the Act Against Slavery.
I should note that, in 2008, Ontario passed a private member’s bill officially designating Aug. 1 – the date, not the holiday – “Emancipation Day.” It’s a symbolic gesture acknowledging the long presence and contributions of Ontario’s black community, which puts it in a category with Ukrainian Heritage Day (Sept. 7), Franco-Ontarian Day (Sept. 25), Portugal Day (June 10), and many others. We have an abundance of such celebrations of the separate and particular. What we lack are celebrations of the shared and universal.
The fight against slavery was a struggle to expand our sense of shared humanity from some to all. It was a universal struggle. Emancipation Day was everyone’s triumph. It should be celebrated everywhere – but especially here in Canada, where a crucial chapter in a glorious story was written, where the spirit of the day speaks so perfectly to what this country wants to be, and where we just happen to have a holiday waiting for a proper name.