Blog originally posted August 1, 2017
2021-06-17 Language updated to meet current best practice.
In this blog post we will explore the origins of Emancipation Day in Ontario, and examine the impact of the Slavery Abolition Act on early Black settlement in Simcoe County. This post serves as a good primer to our online exhibit on the Wilberforce Street Settlement.
Emancipation Day (August 1st) is celebrated across the British Commonwealth as a commemoration of the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act. The Act was passed on August 28, 1833, which meant that by August 1, 1834 slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. Emancipation Day has also been long celebrated in Simcoe County. A July 30, 1862 article from The Spirit of the Age describes Emancipation Day celebrations in Barrie (partially lost – brackets represent interpolations):
… being the 28th Anniversary [of the emanci]pation by England of the … slaves, is to be kept by the [pe]ople of this county with more [extraor]dinary signs of rejoicing and thankfulness. They are to meet at Barrie, and among the proceedings of the day have arranged for a religious service, at the conclusion of which a sermon will be delivered by the Rev. Mr. Morgan. In the evening the party will dine together, and afterwards hold a soiree, when several able speakers will address the meeting. The rejoicings are not to be confined to the colored people, but all who feel friendly towards them are desired to join their party. We trust the interesting proceedings will pass off successfully.[i]
The road to abolition in Ontario passed through Simcoe County and is reflected in the County's namesake: John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada (a pre-cursor to Ontario), was a vocal supporter of the abolitionist movement.
Unfortunately, this road was far from smooth or direct. By the 1790s the abolitionist movement was gaining traction in the British colonies. In March of 1793, Chloe Cooley, an enslaved Black woman owned by Sergeant Adam Vrooman, was forcefully restrained by Vrooman as he attempted to take her across the Niagara River to New York, where she would be sold. Cooley resisted, and it took three men to restrain her. Peter Martin, a Black Loyalist, and William Grisley, a white employee of Vrooman, testified publically to the violence done to Chloe Cooley. Public outcry over Cooley's inhumane treatment allowed Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe to introduce legislation intended to abolish slavery. At the time, the legislature was too invested in slavery to allow for full abolition, but a compromise was reached in An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude or An Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada. On July 9th 1793, Simcoe gave Royal Assent to the bill.
967-110 "'War Clouds' - General John Graves Simcoe, First Governor of Upper Canada 1792" - J.D. Kelly (1862-1958), Globe Printing Co. 1910
Image Copyright: Public Domain
The Act did not free enslaved people, but it did prevent their importation into Upper Canada. Children born to enslaved parents would be free at age 25, and children of the next generation would be free at birth. Similar Acts were tabled in Lower Canada and the Atlantic Provinces, but they were never passed, with those areas taking their cue instead from the central British government.
One of the most prominent voices for abolitionism in the British Government was William Wilberforce, who was a politician from 1780-1825. He made his first abolition speech in Parliament in 1789. He introduced many abolitionist bills into the House, but in 1807 An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade or the Slave Trade Act was finally passed. The Act did not free currently enslaved persons, but was designed to put an end to the slave trade in the British Empire. The bill very much paved the way for the Act of 1833.
This series of legislation had an impact on Simcoe County settlement. The outbreak of the War of 1812 caused apprehension among Black settlers in Upper Canada, who feared an American victory might return them to slavery. As a result, many free Black people, some of whom had escaped slavery, volunteered to fight for the British. One noted militia unit was Captain Runchey's Company for Coloured Men, which saw action at Stoney Creek, Queenston Heights, Lundy's Lane, and St. David's.
2016-25 Davy Thompson, brother of James Thompson, born in Oro Township
From the Oro Township Historical Committee collection.
Image Copyright: Public Domain
After the War of 1812, it was in Upper Canada's interests to start settling the area between York (now Toronto) and Penetanguishene. Land access to Georgian Bay and Lake Huron was deemed strategically important, particularly in the event of further conflict with the Americans. As a result, between 1819 and 1831 the government of Upper Canada sponsored and encouraged Black settlement along the west side of Concession II in Oro Township. The settlement was called Wilberforce Street, after William Wilberforce. Many of these settlers were Black Loyalists and veterans of the War of 1812. For a more in depth look at the Wilberforce Street Settlement in Oro Township visit our online exhibit.
972-86 Simcoe County Patent Book, page 298 showing Wilberforce Street
The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 went a long way to making the Canadian provinces a perceived safe haven for refugees fleeing slavery, particularly after the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This Act strengthened similar legislation from 1793, which required the pursuit and capture of enslaved persons anywhere in the United States. Monetary compensation for the return of enslaved people also resulted in a rise in the capture and enslavement of free people. Between 1850 and 1864 Black settlement in Canada West (another pre-cursor to Ontario) increased dramatically, as settlers sought the freedom granted by the Slavery Abolition Act.
The final statute we refer to here is the Emancipation Day Act, passed by the Government of Ontario in 2008. At that time the province officially recognized August 1st as Emancipation Day across the province. Emancipation Day has been long celebrated in the Caribbean. Celebrations now overlap with the Caribana Festival in Toronto, which always culminates with festivities on the August long weekend. It is also very close in time to Simcoe Day, which is what we call the Monday of the August long weekend around here and in Toronto, commemorating our first Lieutenant-Governor. Later in the month, August 23rd is the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.
BBC. "William Wilberforce (1759-1833)." BBC. 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/wilberforce_william.shtml Web. 11 Jul. 2017.
Emancipation Day Act. Statutes of Ontario, c. 25. Ontario. 2008. https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/08e25 Web. 11 Jul. 2017.
French, G. E. Men of colour: An historical account of the black settlement on Wilberforce Street and in Oro Township, Simcoe County, Ontario, 1819-1949. Stroud, Ont.: Kaste Books, 1978.
Henry, Natasha L. "Chloe Cooley and the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, 2013. http://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chloe-cooley-and-the-act-to-limit-slavery-in-upper-canada/ Web. 11 Jul. 2017.
Henry. Natasha L. "Fugitive Slave Act of 1850." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, 2014. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/fugitive-slave-act-of-1850/ Web. 11 Jul. 2017.
Henry, Natasha L. "Slavery Abolition Act, 1833." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, 2014. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/slavery-abolition-act-1833/ Web. 11 Jul. 2017.
Hull Museum. "William Wilberforce – the man." Hull Museum Collections. http://www.hullcc.gov.uk/museumcollections/collections/storydetail.php?irn=691&master=443 Web. 11 Jul. 2017.
The Story of Oro. 2nd edition. Oro: Oro Historical Committee, 1987.
[i] Recorded only in "G.E French. Men of Colour: An historical account of the black settlement on Wilberforce Street and in Oro Township, Simcoe County, Ontario, 1819-1949. Stroud, Ont: Kaste Books, 1978. p. 56-57."
[ii] p. 9.
Images on this page marked as public domain are free to re-use. If you do re-use public domain images, please credit the Simcoe County Archives as the source and link back to this page.