Hundreds in Toronto ride the ‘Underground Freedom Train’ to mark Emancipation Day | CBC News

Hundreds of people boarded TTC subway cars late Monday for the annual Underground Freedom Train Ride, marking the start of Emancipation Day celebrations in Toronto.

Those taking part rode from Union to Downsview station as part of the symbolic yearly journey celebrating the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which initiated the process of ending legal human bondage in the former British Empire.

The ride is meant in part as a nod to the legacy of American abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman and the famed Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes used by enslaved African Americans to escape to freedom in some northern states and Canada after slavery was abolished here.

“We are in an imaginative time in an imaginative world, and we have the subway. And the subway, the last time I checked, runs underground. So we could use the power of that word to speak to a historical moment,” said Ita Sadu, who co-founded the event 10 years ago.

As people boarded the train, a choir sang traditional freedom songs, while others danced to the sound of drums.

This was the first year Oral Deen Brown participated in the ride. She brought her daughter along as well.

“I’ve been wanting to come for the past few years,” she told CBC Toronto.

“I think it’s important to be apart of our ancestral legacy. Our forefathers were here to build a foundation so I can be standing here today. So I think it’s important for me to come to make my mark for my generation.”

The ride also has a connection to the upcoming Toronto Caribbean Carnival (formerly known as Caribana), Sadu said, itself a celebration of emancipation. Illuminating that connection was a key part of how the freedom ride was conceived a decade ago.

“Carnival is the most public expression of emancipation,” Sadu said, noting the event is best known for its vibrant costumes, singing, dancing, a huge parade and wider celebration of Black culture. 

“We were thinking, how do we bring this awareness that emancipation is connected to the annual Carnival? How do we convey the idea to Canadians about a significant milestone in our history? A milestone that marked the end of the enslavement period [in the former British Empire].”

Scenes of dancers in costumes from the 55th Toronto Caribbean Carnival's Grand Parade at the Exhibition Place on July 30, 2022.
The Toronto Caribbean Carnival is in its 56th year. The annual event is a days-long celebration of Black emancipation. (Sabah Rahman/CBC)

Carnival runs from Aug. 3 to Aug. 7 this year.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also attended the freedom ride. He gave a short speech over the subway trains’ sound system, saying it was a “deep honour” to participate in the 10th anniversary of the event.

“It is a moment to reflect and to celebrate,” he said. “A moment to reflect on all those who came before, all those who fought for freedom and all those who continue to inspire us every day to do more to stand up, to be better allies,” he said.

Later Tuesday, the Black Liberation Flag will be raised in a ceremony at Toronto City Hall. August was proclaimed Black Liberation Month in the city in August 2019, while Emancipation Day has been officially celebrated for decades.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

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