Charmaine Nelson has founded the only research centre dedicated to the study of Canadian slavery, right here in Halifax.
Charmaine Nelson has founded the only research centre dedicated to the study of Canadian slavery, right here in Halifax.

What Emancipation Day means to Nova Scotia

"We're in a nation that has never apologized for slavery—and has never acknowledge that slavery ever happened."

Dr. Charmaine Nelson is a nationally leading researcher and academic, focusing on the history of slavery in Canada, plumbing the depths of a field of study that this country is desperately far behind on. (When The Coast interviewed Nelson this spring, she explained that in America, there’s a “whole infrastructure” studying the history of slavery that began in the 1970s. “We’re so far behind it’s ridiculous,” she said.)

As the founder the only research centre dedicated to the study of Canadian slavery, located right here in Halifax at NSCAD University, Nelson knows all about this overlooked chapter of our past—and all about how most of us have no idea it even happened. With the arrival of the new national holiday Emancipation Day on August 1—a celebration of the historical end of slavery in the British Empire—we figured it was the perfect time to catch up with Nelson again to talk about this overlooked part of our past. Want to watch this conversation live? Head to The Coast’s IGTV or to YouTube, below:

(The below conversation has been edited for length.)

The Coast: Why is Emancipation Day historically significant?

Dr. Nelson: "Great question. But we have to first explain: what is this day that we're commemorating? So, Emancipation Day, that we are commemorating in Canada, of course, has to do with the British Empire. And so this prompts us to recall that when we think about the 400 year history of trans-Atlantic slavery, we're dealing with multiple empires, who simultaneously were colonizing the Americas. And to do so, they expropriating and stealing free Africans as the dominant group of enslaved labourers. Well, million Africans survived what we call the Middle Passage and ended up being scattered from Argentina to Canada, including the Caribbean.

So that included places like, you know, empires like Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, France, people usually forget Norway and Denmark, too, were colonizing the Caribbean—and also of course Britain. So, we of course, during the Revolutionary War, were loyal to Britain. And of course America became America at that point. So Americans abolish slavery on the back of literally the end of their civil war: 1865 is when slavery ended [for them]. For us, it came earlier, not because of agitation within Canada to end it. But, there was an act pass through the British Parliament in London, England, in 1833 that became effective in 1834 that said, basically, ‘Everybody in our empire needs to stop the practice of trans-Atlantic slave trade.’ That included the regions that would become Canada. So that's emancipation for us, the marking of that act becoming a law, and then the end of a 200 year history of slavery in those regions that would become Canada under the French and the British.

So the second part: The significance of this? I think what's really powerful: We're in a nation that has never apologized for slavery—and broadly, never had any level of governments acknowledge that slavery ever happened in Canada. So for me, if you're acknowledging emancipation, you’re acknowledging slavery happened too—because emancipation of what?

I'm hoping Canadians will stop and ask themselves that question ‘Emancipation from what?’And of course that answer leads back to trans-Atlantic slavery.

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That is the question most people would ask: What was it that people were emancipated from? And the answer to that is the two century history of Canadian slavery. So, I'm hoping Canadians will stop and ask themselves that question ‘Emancipation from what?’

And of course that answer leads back to trans-Atlantic slavery.”

In what ways do you think the lives of everyday Black Canadians would have changed after the 1834 Slavery Abolition Act came into effect across the British Empire?

“So here's what we have to understand: If slavery was only about control through physical brutality, like corporal punishment—like ‘I will brand my initials into your body’—then slavery could not have been sustained in a place like Jamacia or Haiti. Haiti, in the 1780s, 90 percent of the population were enslaved Africans. White people were completely outnumbered. So, with just physical brutality that couldn't have been sustained for 400 years. It was also about surveillance, about ruling through terror: ‘I will terrorize you; I will make you live daily in fear’. And also through psychological manipulation, through things like the threat of family separation looming over enslaved people.

So there's all these different ways slavery is being sustained through material deprivation, through control of cultural practice: ‘Don't play your drum anymore. Don't speak your language anymore.’

With emancipation, technically those things stop. But then, we understand that because slavery ends doesn't mean that racism ends. We have, then, a world where anti-Black racism has been the foundation.

With emancipation, technically those things stop. But then, we understand that because slavery ends doesn't mean that racism ends. We have, then, a world where anti-Black racism has been the foundation.

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For instance, policing has always been a part of the controlled, enslaved community and individuals, so that policing takes over and away where slave-owning control has to end. Legislation takes over in a way that's slave-owning and control has to end.

So, this is a long way of saying things would never have been good for free Blacks in the period of slavery. And for people newly freed, it would have been extremely difficult, too, because you'd have to imagine: How did the white slave owner feel to have to give up their property? Most of them would have been extraordinarily resentful. Those people obviously were already racist, they already had racist ideologies of white supremacy. They don't disappear overnight.”

When you last chatted with The Coast for an article this spring, you said “We have a 200-year history of slavery in this country and it's not being taught at any level of curriculum: Not in grade school, not in high school, not in college and not in university. And there's very few publications or, let's say, types of media, or art, or popular culture, too, about slavery that's produced about Canada.” How could Emancipation Day help change that, and help daylight this overlooked history in general?

“I think the day itself is a first step. It’s for people now to take that first step and turn it into something that can be transformative. And that's what we're of course aiming to do with the Institute for the Study of Canadian slavery at NSCAD.

For people who may not know, I'm a professor of art history, and that is weird and strange in the field of trans-Atlantic slavery studies, as most people would guess, the majority of people studying slavery are historians. But here's the thing, why art historians have to be at the table: There is a 400 year history of representation that is created, that is either pro-slavery or anti-slavery, across all those empires we talked about at the top. So we have this visual archive, not just a bunch of events and battles and you know, interactions happening, but we have it being documented, visually. Who has the chops, basically, to analyze those things as documents? Art historians.

I think it's really important that we be at the table because literally certain genres of art like portraiture are completely transformed under the weight of slavery. And what I mean by that is: When you find portraits of an enslaved person—and I'll just remind people that a portrait is not just an image of a human being, it is the image of a historically specific human being or someone who actually lived. So, when you find portraits of rich white people, they then have the power through that patronage to dictate to the artist: ‘Make me look good. This has to be a flattering likeness. I'm holding the money, and you are employee, then.’

With enslaved people, as you can imagine, the enslaved person is almost always when they're representing the context of slavery, being forced to sit for the portrait by the slave owner. So the portrait, too, literally a status symbol for the slave owner to demonstrate that they own human beings or human property. And often enslaved people were forced to sit in group portraits with the slave owners and their families, and to actually be in the act of labouring in the portrait: So they're handing you some fruit in the portrait or they're holding your horse still while the child is on the horse.

So, whereas the portraits of free, rich white people were done to flatter them and elevate them, when black people get included in portraits as enslaved people it’s literally done to document their objectification and their chattel status.

It's not just the law doing that work, it's not just politics doing the work: It's visual culture that was doing the work of that objectification.

So, yeah, I think this is the moment for us to think: What next? Let's not stop here.”

How would you say the legacy of slavery has shaped or influences today’s Canada?

“Oh boy. Well, you know, in every possible way, because slavery impacted detrimentally enslaved people—Black and Indigenous—in every conceivable way, because slave owners controlled everything about you.

So, coming forward to your point today: Why does policing look like it does? Why is it Black people and Indigenous people, for instance, that are so thoroughly over-policed in terms of the rates at which we get stopped, carded, whatever language you want to use? We know there's differential outcomes in terms of Black people moving through judicial systems: We'll go to jail for five years for possession of marijuana before it was legal, whereas the white person might get probation or go to jail for six months. So, that.

Health care, too, health access: The way we're treated by our doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals is completely different. When Black people go to their doctor or healthcare professional and say that we're in pain, they don't believe us. And they will prescribe us painkillers that are sufficient for the pain that we're suffering.

So whereas we say ‘Listen, my arm, Doctor, I need you to put it in a cast. It is broken.’ they'll say ‘No, no, that's a sprain here's some Tylenol.’ Because when white people speak about their truth in an objective manner, they are believed. When we speak about our truth in an objective manner, we're always subjective. And we're not to be trusted with the ability to narrate our own realities.

Because when white people speak about their truth in an objective manner, they are believed. When we speak about our truth in an objective manner, we're always subjective. And we're not to be trusted with the ability to narrate our own realities.

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And that goes back to slavery too, and stereotypes of black criminality that are connected to things like the runaway slave ad: In those ads [which were newspaper classifieds in the 200-year period where Canada had slaves], the slave owners will often say: ‘This person stole my gold, my jewelry, they stole my horse.’

We don't know if any of that's true. Perhaps it's true. A lot of times, it was a lie to incentivize the public to think: ‘Hey, this person is a criminal, anyway. And this slave owner’s offered $10 for me to help catch them, so why not help participate in catching them?’ It was a constant criminalization, then, going on in that print culture.

So that is still with us. The number of Black people in my life I know who've gotten multiple jaywalking tickets is ridiculous. Whereas, I once was talking to a group of white friends about jaywalking tickets and they were like ‘What are jaywalking tickets?’

We’ve got to think about all the different ways that, still, the different arms or aspects or divisions of the state are surveilling us and being punitive against us for trying to live. Just for existing. We have our little codes but we're like, you get a ticket for driving while Black; for walking while Black; for eating while Black. Because it's not about what you were doing. It’s about who you were being when you got that ticket.”

What do you wish Canadians understood about this legacy of slavery and racism?

“The pushback I get when I lecture a lot in Canada is sometimes from white Canadians who, to be frank, want to insist that their experience of Canada is everybody's experience in Canada and we really have to stop that. If we're going to advance race relations in any way, we have to listen to each other. And frankly, it's the Black community, it’s the Indigenous communities, that have not been listened to. When we speak about our experiences and what they look like today and what they look like in the past, we're constantly doubted, and we're constantly seen as being too sensitive, hyper subjective. And all of that is like no, we're living daily an experience of race and racism.

Canadians have to start to listen to Black people that the experiences of race and racism, which are sadly one of the profound inheritances of trans-Atlantic slavery, have not left us. And you can see that that's why the Black Lives Matter movement, actually, was finally getting some respect: Because we saw what happened to Mr. George Floyd. He should be here now. Trayvon Martin should be in his 20s. Tamir Rice should be a teenager. And the cases like that which have been in Canada as well, with over-policing, police brutality, etcetera. Like, who are we, and can we finally live up to our rhetoric? Canada has a beautiful race rhetoric—it's not authentic though, because that's not what's happening on the ground for Black people. So we got to be honest about that."

This Q&A has been condensed for length and clarity.

About The Author

Morgan Mullin

Morgan is the Arts & Entertainment Editor at The Coast, where she writes about everything from what to see and do around Halifax to profiles of the city’s creative class to larger cultural pieces. She’s been with The Coast since 2016.

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