For a person who has dedicated her life to eradicating the erasure of New Brunswick Black history, this was a moment unlike any other.
Mary McCarthy Brandt said she witnessed history being made this week when the New Brunswick Legislature unanimously agreed to formally declare Aug. 1 Emancipation Day.
“The whole floor stood up and applauded the gallery. It was beautiful,” said the historian and advocate, who watched the event unfold on her laptop in Florida, where she now makes her home.
Emancipation Day marks the day in 1834 when the Slavery Abolition Act went into effect in the British empire.
Last year, McCarthy Brandt helped form the group REACH N.B., which stands for Remembering Each African Cemeteries History in New Brunswick. The group is partnering with the provincial archives to locate and document forgotten and abandoned gravesites and tell the stories and histories attached to them.
That group, along with other organizations such as the New Brunswick African Association and the New Brunswick Black Artists Alliance, worked to get the province to declare formal recognition of the day. It has already been formally recognized by both Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia and by the federal government.
In a statement to CBC News after the New Brunswick declaration on Wednesday, the province said there are no formal plans for a ceremony or celebration to mark Emancipation Day, “but that’s always subject to change.”
McCarthy-Brandt said many communities in the province have a rich history of commemorating the day on their own, but it was important to get the province on board.
“The province has benefited from a slave-based economy, and our ancestors helped build this province.
“But we also want to celebrate the beautiful Black community we come from,” she said. “And how we have risen up from slavery. I always say that our ancestors were enslaved, but not our minds.”
That’s a sentiment Yusuf Shire, president of the New Brunswick African Association, agrees with.
“We’re standing on our ancestors shoulders for the work that they’ve been doing until now, so this is not something that we just started working on,” Shire said.
“We’re happy as a community, but there is a lot of work needs to be done.”
He said some of that work involves the province addressing the systemic challenges faced by Black communities, and it’s also important for the population at large to educate themselves on the significance of Emancipation Day.
“They’ll be able to understand the meaning of emancipation … because slavery actually disrupted the civilization of the African continent,” he said.
For Thandiwe McCarthy, president of the New Brunswick Black Artist Alliance, this is also a moment to reflect on preserving and celebrating Black culture.
“History is identity,” he said.
“If you want to pass things on to the next generation, like an emancipation celebration, like Black excellence and Black beauty, you cannot do that without artists.”
McCarthy believes the declaration from the province will allow for greater accountability.
“When we talk of funding for our cultural events, when we talk about economic barriers, educational barriers for our international students, we can now point to this … and say, ‘You stood up unanimously [for] a motion that stated Black Lives Matter. Here’s how we can continue to maintain that and improve upon the conditions of the Black people in this province.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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