August 1 is Emancipation Day in Ontario


The city of Toronto is 175 years old. On March 6, 1834 the Town of York was formally incorporated as the City of Toronto. This year, 2009, also marks the 175th year since the enslavement of Africans in Canada was abolished.

After more than 10 years of advocacy and petitioning, the Ontario provincial government passed the Emancipation Day Bill (Bill 111) on December 4, 2008 and the Bill received Royal Assent on December 10, 2008. August 1 is now officially Emancipation Day in Ontario.

Contrary to popular opinion, then Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, did not abolish slavery in Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1793. He did make an attempt which was thwarted by other members of the Family Compact, who were slave holders and dominated the House of Assembly.

Although Simcoe’s name is remembered and celebrated on August 1 partly because of his attempt to end slavery, the name and the story of the enslaved African woman whose protest pushed him to take action, is scarcely known. Chloe Cooley, an enslaved African woman was brutally beaten, tied up with ropes and taken across the Niagara River from Queenston on March 14, 1793 to be sold to an American buyer.

Her enslaver, William Vrooman, could not subdue Cooley on his own. He needed the help of two other men, his brother and a neighbour, to assist him in brutalizing and transporting her across the Niagara. She protested as they beat her, tied her up, threw her into the bottom of a boat and rowed it across the river.

Her screams and struggles attracted so much attention that two witnesses, Peter Martin, “a free Black”, and William Grisley made an official report to Simcoe. At an Executive Council meeting on March 21, 1793, they recounted what they had witnessed on March 14.

Simcoe attempted to pass an Act abolishing slavery throughout Ontario. The slaveholders on the Executive Council, including Peter Russell who acted in Simcoe’s position after he left Canada, disagreed, citing the serious economic consequences. The Act was modified to gradually eliminate slavery, stating that all enslaved Africans in the province would remain enslaved until death, that no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada and that children born to enslaved African women would become free at age 25. The average life expectancy of enslaved Africans was 25 years.

The Act Against Slavery was passed by Upper Canada on July 9, 1793. This law did not prevent White men and women living in Upper Canada from selling their human “property” to slaveholders in other areas of North America, South America or the Caribbean. Some enslaved Africans in Upper Canada fled south to the free states in the U.S. Enslaved Africans from various parts of British North America (Canada) began fleeing south to Vermont after slavery was abolished there in July 1777.

Cooley’s experience was not an isolated incident. White men and women who kept enslaved Africans as property in Canada, frequently bought and sold them as if they were furniture or other items, rather than human beings with feelings. In a York newspaper dated February 10, 1806, Peter Russell (Simcoe’s successor) has an advertisement to sell a 40 year old “Black woman” named Peggy and her 15-year-old son, Jupiter, whom he describes as “servants for life”.

Peggy was being sold for $150 and Jupiter for $200. However – if the buyer had ready cash – he or she could get a discount of 25 per cent. Russell owned Peggy, her son and her two daughters (younger than Jupiter) and had no qualms about selling a mother away from her children or her husband (Mr. Pompadour) who was a “free Black”.

The law at the time bestowed the status of the mother on her children regardless of the father’s status, to ensure that the children resulting from the rapes of enslaved African women by their White owners (or the owners’ relatives, friends, colleagues etc.,) could not become free because their father was White.

In Maureen G. Elgersman’s 1999 book, Unyielding Spirits: Black Women and Slavery in Early Canada and Jamaica, an advertisement from the October 1792 Upper Canada Gazette, placed by the Crooks family (father and son merchants, James and William Crooks) who lived in Niagara, speaks volumes about the fate of enslaved Africans in this country.

“Wanted to purchase. A Negro girl, from 7 to 12 years of age, of good disposition. For further particulars apply to the subscribers. W. & J. Crooks”.

August 1 has, for many years, been an official holiday and recognized as Emancipation Day in several Caribbean island nations – formerly British colonies – as well as in Guyana. The same law that emancipated enslaved Africans in Canada was also supposed to put an end to the enslavement of Africans in other British colonies and Dominions.

Unfortunately, the slaveholders in the Caribbean islands and British Guiana (Guyana) decided that they were going to get another six years of free labour, by naming the Africans “apprentices.” This, despite the fact that they had received compensation for losing their “property”.

The “apprenticeship” system put in place after August 1, 1834 meant that Africans were forced to continue providing free labour for 40 hours a week to enrich their previous “owners”. There was widespread dissatisfaction expressed by the Africans in various places including the Bahamas, Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica, which forced the colonizers and the British government to declare an end to the “apprenticeship” system and, on August 1, 1838, Africans throughout the British colonized areas were legally free from chattel slavery.

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