Image: Matthew Green/Twitter

While it grapples with the huge and related issues of a pandemic, an economy in need of massive transformation, and climate change, the Canadian Parliament is considering two seemingly small measures that won’t change anybody’s life, but could have considerable symbolic significance.

The first is part of the government’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which the Harper Conservative government set up in 2008 to address the horror of Canada’s residential school system for Indigenous children. 

Readers might remember that when the commission reported in 2015, the Liberal party, then in third place in Parliament, promised to implement every single one of its 94 calls to action. 

Five years on we’re nowhere near that goal. 

But Parliament now has before it a bill that responds to one of the commission’s calls, call #80, to be exact. It asks the government to establish “as a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.”

The second measure deals with another, long-ignored part of Canadian history, the institution of slavery. 

To the extent we Canadians have thought about the “peculiar institution” (a 19th-century American euphemism for slavery), it was to note that Canada was the terminal point of the underground railroad to freedom for thousands of enslaved Black people. 

We Canadians have rarely talked about the two centuries during which slavery existed in this country.

Liberal MP Majid Jowhari has proposed a resolution that could help correct that omission. It would officially recognize “August 1, the day in 1834 on which the British Parliament abolished slavery throughout the empire, as Emancipation Day, and also officially recognize that, prior to that date, slavery existed in the territory that would become Canada.”

Memorable speeches in the House

A number of members of Parliament got very personal when they addressed the two measures — both of them designed, at heart, to help create new chapters in Canadians’ collective book of memories.

Rachel Blaney, an NDP MP from Powell River, British Columbia, quoted one constituent who knows all about residential schools from firsthand experience: 

“An elder from my riding named Alberta Billy once told me to imagine what would happen to myself and my community if every child from the age of four to 16 were suddenly removed. No one knew who they were with and who was caring for them. That always hits me hard. I cannot imagine any of us thinking about all our precious children, however we know them, being removed from our communities, and the silence and sadness that would hit all of us as we looked around and did not see their beautiful faces.”

She then brought the issue right inside her own home:

“I would like to take this opportunity to recognize my husband, Darren Blaney, who is a survivor of residential school. When he was in residential school, his number was 97. When I think about a soul, a human being, identified by a number and losing so much more of their identity, I am absolutely heartbroken …”

Blaney moved on from that reflection to talk, also in a personal way, about the challenge of educating young Canadians about the residential schools and their legacy:

“When my son moved up to middle school, he was actually able to work with his father on a piece of art for his school to recognize the history of indigenous residential schools. It was a transformation mask that talked about the intention of residential schools to ‘take the Indian out of the child.’ On the front of it, there is a white face that opens up and shows an Indigenous face. My son was very proud when they brought it to the school. It gave him the ability to talk about a history that is a reality for him every day in his life.”

Black MP frequently asked: “Where are you from?”

In introducing the Emancipation Day motion Liberal Majid Jowhari also reflected on history: 

“In 1807, the British Parliament voted to end the transatlantic slave trade. On August 1, 1834, chattel slavery was abolished across the British empire and all its commonwealth territories, including Canada. This was a landmark victory for Black communities across the British empire and especially for the Black Canadians who organized, rallied and fought for this legislation.” 

As the residential school bill was personal to Rachel Blaney, so was the Emancipation Day bill to Matthew Green, an NDP member for a Hamilton riding and one of a handful of African-Canadian MPs.

“Like many Black and racialized Canadians, I am often asked the question, ‘Where are you from?’ When I share with them that I am Canadian, the next question I am asked is, ‘But what about your parents?’ I tell them they are Canadian, and they ask about my grandparents. I share with them that they are Canadian. My people go back here six generations …”

Green then talked about the crucial difference between being a slave and being a person forced into slavery.

“It is true that as a young person I grew up in our education system, and I would have shared that I am the descendant of runaway slaves. Of course, that is false. The context is very problematic because they were not slaves, they were people who were enslaved … These were a people who survived the transatlantic slave trade and who found themselves in one of the most wretched conditions of humanity, the deepest evil of the United States of America, at that time, in those settlements, yet they survived. They were the ones who risked everything in following those footpaths to get to freedom, and they are the ones who will teach us about emancipation today.”

Both national memory measures — one on residential schools, the other on the abolition of slavery — are expected to easily pass the House of Commons, unamended. They will then go to the Senate, which will take them up some time in the New Year. The only barrier to their becoming law could be a spring 2021 election.

That’s a pretty big barrier, when you consider that Ottawa is full of fevered election talk these days. 

Amidst the inevitable political jockeying for advantage that will happen over the next four to six months, the politicians should not forget their pledge to enact and make real both of these long-promised measures.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Matthew Green/Twitter

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...