What's the Connection Between Carnival and Emancipation Day?

July 20, 2023 | Rachelle

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When I was a little girl, my parents would take me to the Toronto Caribbean Carnival parade. Back then, it was called Caribana. As a first generation Canadian, this annual extravaganza was more than a mere festival: it ignited a blazing flame within me, and created an eternal bond to my Caribbean roots that would shape my identity. I remember the harmonious beats of the steelpan intertwining with the palpitations of my eager heart. I can still vividly recall how the kaleidoscope of costumes, rhythm of calypso, smell of island foods and jubilant atmosphere flooded my soul. 

Little Masquerader
Little masquerader. Image by Dionne Taylor-Allum. Used with permission.

The 2023 festivities are now well on their way, so don't wait until the Grand Parade on Saturday, August 5 to have a blast. There are many incredible Carnival events happening across Toronto, including at TPL branches. Head to your local library to learn how to play the steelpan or take part in a Cuban and Brazilian drumming workshop. 

Plus, on Thursday, August 3 at 6 pm, enjoy a tribute concert celebrating the life and legacy of Harry Belafonte at Toronto Reference Library. Groove to the sounds of Maurice Gordon and the Pimento band, and explore the indigenous and roots music of Jamaica. 

In my teens, I continued to enjoy all that Carnival had to offer, but it wasn't until decades later that I learned about its connection to Emancipation Day. In fact, Carnival began as an expression of freedom from slavery. For this reason, the Toronto Caribbean Carnival takes place around the anniversary of the abolishment of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. While this day has been recognized for years, it was not until March 24, 2021, that Canada's House of Commons voted to officially designate August 1 as Emancipation Day.  

Check out this timeline from the Canadian Encyclopedia to see how Canada was involved in slavery as early as 1628. Many people often see Canada as a place of refuge for freedom seekers, yet we have a long history of enslavement that was just as brutal here as it was in the Untied States. I found many eye-opening documents in our digital archive, including, Slave Days in Canada, which provides a glimpse of what life was like for those who were enslaved.

As we move into Carnival season, let's take the time to learn more about Emancipation Day and its significance. Check out some titles below or browse our carefully curated Emancipation Day and Caribbean Voices reading lists. 

Learn about the history of Emancipation Day in Canada and how people of African descent celebrated their newfound freedom.

River Sing Me Home
River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer

After Emancipation is decreed in Barbados, cries of joy turn to sorrow when the plantation owner announces that all slaves must now work for him for another six years as his apprentices. In the aftermath, Rachel, a runaway slave, leaves the plantation in search of her five children who were previously sold.

Blacks in Canada: A History
Blacks in Canada: A History by Robin W. Winks

Read about the detailed histories of African Canadians, from the introduction of slavery in 1628 to the first wave of Caribbean immigration in the 1950s and 1960s.

This historical novel about the Haitian Revolution is based on the true-life stories of two extraordinary women: Gran Toya, a West African-born warrior who helped lead a slave rebellion in Haiti, and Marie-Claire Bonheur, the first Empress of Haiti. 

For a quick overview of Carnival, watch Toronto Caribbean Carnival: fun and free, a documentary that celebrates this festival while exploring the history of Caribbean colonization. 

No matter how you choose to spend Carnival or Emancipation Day, feast on the wonderous culture of the Caribbean and be sure to enjoy "yuhself"!

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