TORONTO -- Sunday marked Canada’s first federally recognized Emancipation Day -- the day on which the British Empire ended the practice of slavery for close to a million African people and their descendants across the former colonies.

The recognition of the day follows years of campaigning by Black lawmakers and community advocates, all of which culminated in March, when the federal government unanimously voted to recognize Emancipation Day.

Aug. 1, 1834 was the date an act came into effect that ended slavery in the former British colonies, including Upper and Lower Canada. The act freed about 800,000 enslaved people of African descent across the colonies nearly 200 years ago.

In-person and virtual ceremonies and events were held to commemorate Emancipation Day in different cities and provinces, including Nova Scotia, home to a historic Black community.

In a statement online, Nova Scotia Independent Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard – a leading figure in the push to recognize Emancipation Day -- called the day a “monumental milestone for Black people in Canada.”

“In 2021, African Canadians continue to experience systemic anti-Black racism and substantial economic inequalities. Understanding our full history provides a critical perspective of the persisting condition of poverty and violence within Black communities, acknowledging these as systemic issues, not individual issues,” she said.

She added that “federal recognition of the day highlights that Black history is Canadian history” and extends beyond simply the month of February -- echoing how many educators across the country hammered home that same idea last Black History Month.

At an online event on Saturday held by the Delmore Buddy Daye Learning Institute, Bernard also noted how apologies and topics such as reparations need to be discussed seriously.

Natasha Henry, president of Ontario Black History Society which is hosting its own virtual celebration at 6 p.m EST, explained long-standing events such as Caribana festivities in Toronto were created specifically to honour Emancipation Day.

So with the federal recognition, the government is simply following the “long tradition in Canada and in the Americas,” she told in a phone call on Sunday.

“I see it as a great opportunity for more Canadians to … join in understanding that this is also a call to action,” Henry said, attributing the unanimous vote directly to last year’s social uprising following the murder of George Floyd.

“I think it affords an opportunity for people to also not see Emancipation Day as one day, but connected to the wider movement for Black lives around the issues that Black Canadians have raised forever around education, around employment, [and] around the justice of the criminal justice system.”

And in a blog post last week, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO echoed the call for genuine action.

“For real progress to continue, we need more than just a tacit acknowledgement from Canadians and our government,” the commission wrote. “Observing a shameful historical moment in our history is one thing. Doing something proactive to address its legacy is another.”

Michelle Williams, assistant professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University told The Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, which has been promoting several different online events, that today marks simply “one step toward righting the historical wrongs and resulting harms that African Nova Scotians continue to experience.”

In a statement on Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “Emancipation Day is a representation of social activism, justice, and our commitment to an equitable future.

“Today, we recommit ourselves to fighting anti-Black racism, xenophobia, racial discrimination, and related intolerance faced by people of African descent in Canada,” he said.

The federal government’s webpage about the day states that “Emancipation Day celebrates the strength and perseverance of Black communities in Canada. After British colonial settlers established Upper Canada, the number of enslaved Africans and their descendants increased significantly. It is estimated that 3,000 enslaved men, women and children of African descent were brought into British North America and eventually outnumbered enslaved Indigenous Peoples."

With files from The Canadian Press