Wednesday, 9 August 2006

Emancipation Day came early in Canada...

... but in typically Canadian fashion, it came gradually.

In case you don't know - and I didn't till this morning - August 1 is Emancipation Day in Jamaica, among other places, and celebrates the historically unprecedented abolition of slavery in the entire British Empire. This was definitely one of humanity's finer moments, when a mighty empire made an economically detrimental decision for the sole reason that it was the right thing to do. It is not often that morality trumps economics on such a vast scale and if ever there was a candidate for a universal, international holiday, this is it.

It took decades of militancy by abolitionists, headed by William Wilberforce, to turn the mighty ship of the British state in that direction. But the tiny dinghy of Upper Canada was a lighter, nimbler craft, and it proved much easier to bring around.

John Graves SimcoeA mere four years after Wilberforce's first speech in Parliament, and two years after his first anti-slavery bill was defeated, John Graves Simcoe, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, managed to cobble together a compromise consensus in the legislature that resulted in the first anti-slavery legislation in the entire British Empire. He was unable to get the immediate abolition he was aiming for, but he did succeed in passing a law in 1793 that banned the importation of slaves and emancipated the children of slaves when they reached the age of 25. This was effectively abolition in a time-release capsule. By 1810, there were no longer any slaves in Upper Canada.

This illustrates a couple of things for me. First of all, idealism could often be better served by a willingness to compromise even on fundamental principles in order to take the first steps on the journey. The "all or nothing right now" approach far too often results in "nothing". Secondly, it shows one of the important foundational stones of Canadian character. We tend to favour incremental change over revolution, a gradual working things through over swift upheavals. It may make for a somewhat bland history, but I for one will happily pass on the drama of civil war.

My grateful acknowledgements to Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen for his column today on this subject.

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