Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean
Speech on the Occasion of the Student Forum: “From the Abolition of the Slave Trade to the Elimination of Racial Discrimination”
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Rideau Hall, Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Good morning and thank you for joining me as we mark the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in the British Empire.
This anniversary is important because it commemorates the day in which trading and enslaving human beings was no longer legal on Canadian soil.
Over the last few days, I have spent quite some time reflecting on this critical moment in our collective history.
I have felt the pain of countless women and men who were forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean.
I have felt the sadness of the millions of others whose bodies lie scattered across the ocean floor.
I have felt the rage of the Aboriginal peoples who found themselves enslaved in their own land.
As the great-great-granddaughter of African and Aboriginal slaves, these tales of suffering and exploitation have deeply troubled me, reminding me of the struggle that Haitian slaves waged in 1804 to establish the first Black republic in the world.
They have also brought back memories of my State visit to Ghana, just three months ago, when I stood at the “Door of No Return”, at the Elmina Castle.
This having been said, the Bicentenary has also been a source of great inspiration, as I have been moved by the heroic tales of audacity and courage that attest to the unwavering power of citizens and non-citizens to tear down the walls of injustice and tyranny.
By the stroke of a pen, the entire course of human history was changed.
No longer was it acceptable to trade in human beings.
No longer was it justifiable to stand by idly as people were being enslaved.
No longer was it possible to dismiss the inherent dignity of people of African and Aboriginal descent.
On March 25, 1807, the transatlantic slave trade was recognized for what it truly was: one of the most barbaric crimes in the history of humanity.
And this was the dawn of a new day.
A day in which the voices of women and men, the slaves and the free, triumphed over the brute forces of self-interest and hatred.
A day in which the universal principles of justice and freedom prevailed over the perverted laws of inequality and exploitation.
A day that paved the way for the creation of a world in which everyone could be free.
We must not forget that Canadians were active in this global movement, as our esteemed panellists will soon explain.
By the late 18th century, Lower Canada was seeing more and more citizens and lawmakers calling for the abolition of slavery.
Upper Canada, under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, became the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to pass a law freeing slaves.
Black loyalists from Canada became quite active in the growing movement of freed slaves calling for emancipation.
And Canada became the locus of a continent-wide network of concerned citizens, the Underground Railroad, which provided safe havens for thousands of African Americans fleeing slavery in the United States.
But despite these progressive changes, mentalities did not change overnight. Instead, segregation persisted, perpetuating the same racist prejudices and practices that had underpinned the slave system.
Two hundred years later, Canada now stands as a pinnacle of democracy, interracial harmony and equality. Just looking across this room, I can see the great diversity that has made our country so strong.
We cannot deny that decades of segregation and slavery have left us all a legacy of racism and exclusion that continues to manifest itself in our communities today.
We do not want to live in a country where people cannot find a descent job because of the color of their skin.
We do not want to live in a country where people have trouble being served in private establishments because of the color of their skin.
We do not want to live in a country where people have trouble finding housing because of the color of their skin.
Yet, some of these situations still occur today.
While we must celebrate the great strides that we have made as a country, the lingering legacy of racism and exclusion requires that we remain vigilant, working together to ensure that everyone can become a full member of our society.
This because no society is sheltered from racial discrimination. I believe that we cannot address the challenges of the present without reflecting lucidly on the lessons of the past.
As governor general of Canada, I decided to invite young people to Rideau Hall, so that we can continue—together—what our foremothers and forefathers started.
On this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, I want to hear your thoughts about the significance of the abolition of the slave trade.
I want to know how you feel about situations of racial discrimination in Canada.
And, most importantly, I want you to tell me how we, the citizens of Canada, can come together to work on our mentalities, increase solidarity above and beyond our differences, and build the kind of society where everyone has an equal opportunity to flourish.