Panel discussion on “What does the decade mean to you?”

Our Shared Legacy: Symposium celebrates UN Decade of People of African Descent

By Tom Malaba, Editorial Associate

Saturday 25 November 2023

There is very little literature written about former slaves but the stories of Chloe Cooley, Ignatius Sancho and Baptist Minister Samuel Sharpe have been hailed in their fight to end slavery while marking the United Nations Decade of People of African Descent 2015 – 2024.  

Singer Minamou Edjilimo entertains the participants

The symposium organized by Ubuntu Collective, brought together organisations and eminent persons on November 25, at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa to hear stories of bravery, resilience and courage to bring an end to slavery. 

The resistance of Chloe Cooley, a young black woman with a succession of three Nos, as in NO, NO, NO, left a sober mood hanging over the main auditorium as it was retold by a four-man stage cast.  

Prof Yasmine Abtahi speaks on “Considering the Mathematics of Social Justice”

The silence in the auditorium was too loud to hear a falling pin, recounted how Chloe Cooley, a young enslaved domestic near Queenston, Upper Canada, was dragged by three enslavers across the Niagara Falls to be sold in New York State, all this as news of the official abolition of slavery started filtering through.

Dramatic representation of the abolition of slavery

Though Chloe Cooley might have been too weak to escape the grip of her captors, her protest on March 21, 1793, and her story, became a strong catalyst to the passing of a law prohibiting the importation of enslaved Black people into Upper Canada.

Chloe Cooley’s story of bravery, was followed by the story of Ignatius Sancho. Sancho was born aboard a slave ship before he was taken to England by three white sisters. He later escaped from them in his quest to attain formal education, that saw him become a writer and composer.

Tom Zoeller, an American author and journalist, who wrote the Island of Fire, a story of the Christmas day uprising in Jamaica. The incidents that started on Christmas day and continued for several days, later culminated in the hanging of revolutionary leader and Baptist pastor, Samuel Sharpe.

As he headed to the gallows on May 23, 1832,   Sharpe, 28, remained deviant and vowed; “I would rather die on the gallows than die in slavery.” 

A villain of the December 27, 1831 fire-inflamed riots, Baptist Sharpe’s deviance in the face of death helped to bring about abolition of slavery in Jamaica. At the time, Black slaves comprised 90 percent of Jamaica’s population. Tom Zoeller described him as the most important figure of the last 500 years and is he is hailed as a hero and graces the Jamaican 50-dollar bill.

After hearing these touching stories, the audience was in agreement that they had been schooled to half stories that glorified the slave masters like Vasco Da Gama, Christopher Columbus and other white explorers of Africa, while ignoring the stories of these three iconic heroes that stood up to slave masters and brought about the abolition of slavery.

Among the significant features of the symposium were: land acknowledgement by Louise Logue; Voices of Change-The Chloe Cooley story by Glen Sweazey; Ignatius Sancho painting by Christopher Etheridge; and Ignatius Sancho writing by Rosalie McCrae. There was also a tribute to the late Ewart Walters for his book on Sam Sharpe and William Knibb.

Among the topics presented were: Why we are on this journey by Ben Weiss; Rethinking Equity – Considering the Mathematics of Social Justice by Prof Yasmine Abtahi; and Children’s Charter by Richard Barwell.

The Shared Legacy symposium drew eminent persons from the academia, researchers, people of African descent and different organizations. The organizers held open discussions around slavery followed by question-and-answer sessions.

The audience was in agreement that there had to be consistency in capturing stories of the slaves. 

Jean-Marie Guerrier, left, accepts signatory certificate on behalf of Black History Ottawa

June Girvan, who had initiated this celebration of United Nations Declaration of the Decade for People of African descent, and the creation of the Ubuntu collective, reinforced the need to let children know that they have a right to be treated fairly as human beings, regardless of the colour of their skin. Under her leadership, twenty-one Ottawa-based institutions and organisations signed up to uphold the United Nations declaration of the decade (2015 – 2024).  

In commemorating the decade of African descent, important dates still stand out like 5th anniversary of Ottawa’s March 21, 2018. adoption of The Decade; the 190th anniversary of August 28, 1833 – Act to Abolish Slavery in the British Empire (Canada) emancipating Children aged six and under, on August 1, 1834; the 230th anniversary of July 9, 1793- Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada; the 255th anniversary of Thomas Gainsborough’s November 29, 1768 portrait of Ignatius Sancho, in the National of Canada, since 1909; the 390th anniversary of the 1633 question of the enslaved child, “You say that by baptism I shall be like you. Does that mean I must take off my skin?”

A panel discussion on: “What does the decade mean to you?” was chaired by Ben Weiss of the Ottawa Historical Society, and included Councillor Rawlson King, June Girvan, Tom Zeller , Renford Thomas, and Prof. Yasmine Abtahi.

Panel discussions on the meaning of the decade involved speakers from among the signatories followed by comments and questions and answers from the audience.

The following are signatories to the United Nations Declaration of the Decade of People of African Descent: City of Ottawa; Ottawa Police Services Board with Ottawa Police Service; Ottawa Police Services Association; University of Ottawa; University of Ottawa Faculty of Education; Carleton University; Ottawa-Carleton District School Board; Ottawa Catholic School Board; Conseil des ecoles du Centre-Est; Conseil des ecoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario; Ashbury College; Ottawa District Labour Council; The Historical Society of Ottawa; National Gallery of Ottawa; Black Agenda Noir; Black History Ottawa; The Congregation Machzikei Hadas, the Jewish Federal of Ottawa; The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs; and Temple Israel.

Group pic of UN Declaration signatories


Tom Malaba

Tom Malaba is a veteran journalist with over 25 years of media experience in his native Uganda. He recently relocated to Canada and now calls Ottawa home.