Statement from the CBA President on Emancipation Day and the history of slavery in Canada

  • July 31, 2020

August 1 is Emancipation Day – a day to reflect on the history of slavery in Canada and its continuing effects in our own time. On this date 186 years ago, the Slavery Abolition Act, an Act of British Parliament, came into effect officially abolishing slavery in most of the British Empire including Canada. Decades before that, Upper Canada (now Ontario) passed the first anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire in 1793.

Many Canadians think of slavery as part of U.S. history, not our own. Others only know about Canada’s role as a place of refuge for slaves from the U.S. who escaped through the Underground Railroad. This is only part of the story. Black and Indigenous people were enslaved for centuries in colonial Canada.

It was the resistance of enslaved people themselves and the work of the abolitionist movement that brought an end to slavery in Canada. For example, an act of resistance by an enslaved Black woman—Chloe Cooley—inspired the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada of 1793.

For true reconciliation, it is incumbent on each one of us to learn about the history of slavery in Canada and understand how it is linked to the systemic racism that Black and Indigenous people experience today. I entreat all lawyers to reflect on how the law was complicit in upholding slavery, and to think critically about how the legacy of slavery lingers in our legal, social and economic systems. As lawyers, we know more than any other groups of professionals that the law can be used as a sword or a shield.  We must wield the law as a tool to combat racism in our profession and to build a stronger, more cohesive society.

Vivene Salmon
CBA President