August 1 marks Emancipation Day across Canada. While Emancipation Day marks the abolition of slavery among British Colonies in 1834, it has been celebrated by Black communities in many ways for a very long time, and since 2021 it has been officially recognized by government. It’s an opportunity to pause and celebrate the strength, resilience and work of Black communities to survive through slavery while Canada was a territory of the colonial British Empire. We also look with sober reflection at the history of slavery in this country, the ongoing impacts of Canada’s history of oppression to this day. Today is also a day to confront the reality of current anti-Black racism and systemic racism that continue to impact and harm Black people and communities.

We can see the impact systemic racism has on health and wellbeing in the latest homelessness crisis that unfolded on the streets of the city of Toronto, with Black newcomers – asylum-seekers and refugees – left in limbo as governments argued about who was responsible for housing.

To make lasting change, we must all be responsible. To address the legacy of slavery and colonialism that still drive Canadian policies and practices that harm Black people, we must move away from it being someone else’s or some other generation’s issue. We must take steps to unlearn racism, and anti-Black racism specifically. We must find ways to engage directly with the problems and issues – such as poverty, violence, homophobia and transphobia, and mental health and addictions – that intersect with anti-Black racism and have disproportionate impacts on Black communities, much as the COVID-19 pandemic did.

There’s no shortage of work to be done. It’s why a comprehensive Black Health Strategy was needed for Ontario. It’s why the Black Health Committee, made up of Alliance members leadership, continues to work with partners on projects such as the Black Social Prescribing Project, to raise the bar for health equity and Black health and wellbeing. We need to redefine and expand the very idea of emancipation – to one that goes beyond freedom from slavery to freedom from fear and freedom from oppression and violence, including police violence.

The Alliance will continue to work on external issues in support of Black health, including movements to defund the police and resource communities. We also continue a journey with ourselves as an organization and staff who are dedicated to Black health equity, but recognizing our own blind spots, and our own need to continue learning effective ways to be anti-racist.

Celebrations are happening across Ontario and Canada today and this week. Black communities and their allies are gathering to mark the important work that happened in the 19th century to make massive historical change, and the important work happening now to identify and end systemic anti-Black racism, across health, education and other social systems in Canada. As we collectively work towards the goal of reducing and removing fear, poverty, violence, racism, disease and illnesses in Black communities, we must also remember to celebrate freedom and what it means for Black communities in Canada.