Why Ngozi Paul says celebrating Emancipation Day is about the future, not the past

'I think the challenge is for everybody to decide what it means to be free.'
Published July 29, 2021 1:47 p.m. EST
Etalk Etalk

Emancipation Day is a celebration of freedom and Canada is about to celebrate it officially for the first time this year on August 1.

On March 24, 2021, the House of Commons voted unanimously to officially designate August 1 Emancipation Day, which marks the actual day in 1834 that the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect, ending almost 400 years of slavery in the British Empire.

On August 1, Canadians are invited to reflect, educate and engage in the ongoing fight against anti-Black racism and discrimination while celebrating the strength and perseverance of Black communities in Canada.

Canadian actress, director and producer Ngozi Paul told Etalk's Tyrone Edwards that now Emancipation Day is being recognized in Canada, she wanted to celebrate by asking artists what freedom means to them. That's how she came up with the idea for the new one-hour program FreeUp! Emancipation Day, which will air on Sunday, August 1 on CBC.

"I think the challenge is for everybody to decide what it means to be free. Like, thinking about civic engagement and what does it mean to be a part of your community? What does it mean to have the liberties that we actually do have? Who doesn't have those liberties? What are some of the things that we've forgotten?" Paul said. The special is being produced by Paul's Emancipation Arts production company and the sister FreeUp! organization.

"So there's boundless ways to celebrate, truly, but it's really about us actually pivoting and thinking about those."

What is Emancipation Day?

Emancipation Day commemorates the Abolition of Slavery Act, which became law on August 1, 1834. On that day, the practice of slavery officially ended for thousands of people in Canada and around the world. This act freed more than 800,000 people of African descent in Canada and throughout the British Empire.

Unlike in other parts of the world where similar acts of emancipation are marked like Juneteenth in the U.S., Emancipation Day in Canada is still not as widely known nor has it been officially celebrated by the government until this year.

Emancipation Day is not only about honouring the past but it's also about learning Canada's true (often dark) history and telling a more complete story that includes slavery and the still reverberating impacts on the Black community.

"Celebrate Emancipation Day and tell somebody that it's Emancipation Day," Paul added.

It's also about preparing for the future and the fight for equality that will prepare younger generations for success.

Paul explained that her parents and other people like Rosemary Sadlier OOnt, the president of the Ontario Black History Society, have worked extremely hard so others don't have to start from scratch and can have a better future.

Paul credits Sadlier as a pivotal part of making Black History Month and Emancipation Day nationwide observances in Canada.

"Imagine 25 years ago there was no Black History Month. It's hard to even conceive of that and she was also a big part of having Emancipation Day celebrated nationally. She worked for decades in order to do that," Paul said. 

A good way to celebrate in 2021: watch FreeUp! Emancipation Day

FreeUp! Emancipation Day is a new one-hour program that will premiere on August 1st to mark Emancipation Day through the performing arts. The program will be hosted by Ngozi Paul and this special variety show episode will feature notable Black Canadian artists expressing what freedom means to them through performance, dance, music and poetry. 

It will feature several different segments including a Canadian Afro-Indigenous dance performance with an artistic land acknowledgment and performances by Haviah Mighty and celebrated mono-dramatist d’bi.young anitafrika, with young artist-activists such as Anyika Mark, poet laureates Randell Adjei and Peace Akintade, and Silla + Rise to share what freedom means to them through their chosen artistic expression.

"The FreeUp! celebration is — we're coming out of the pandemic, things are gently starting to open up so our vibe this year has been very sort of, like, in nature, outside... That's how we manifested the performances, sort of like its essence. Lowkey, good vibe and then hopefully something that will ignite little sparks," Paul said.

FreeUp! Emancipation Day will invite Canadians to join in a celebration of freedom and Canadians can enjoy fresh new art interwoven with long-established heritage.

Paul said that while filming the special, they went to St. Catharines, Ont., and spoke at the church that Harriet Tubman attended.

"She is really one of my heroes because when I think about the idea that she escaped from being enslaved and then went back over and over and over again, risking her life to free other individuals I'm just like, well if Harriet Tubman did that, at least I can wake up in the morning and return some emails and have a party. That's the least I can do. There's so much inspiration to be had," Paul added.

There will also be a FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2021 After Party that will be live streamed with a stacked line-up of talent from the Headspace Rotates Crew. The virtual after-party will feature internationally celebrated DJ, L'Oqenz alongside some of Toronto's hottest performers and DJs.

Online Resources

Anti-Slavery Movement in Canada

Black History in Canada

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Emancipation Day: Canada’s Past, Present & Future

FreeUp! Online

Ontario Heritage Trust

The Royal Commonwealth Society of Canada