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What’s in a word: change from slave to enslaved at City makes difference for Emancipation Day

Although the addition of two extra letters might not seem like much of a change, the connotation around the word slave versus enslaved was at the heart of Ward 8 Councillor Courtney Walcott’s Emancipation Day recognition speech to Calgary City Council on July 25.

August 1 is Emancipation Day in Canada, commemorating the day in 1834 that the British Empire outlawed slavery and recognizes the history of racism and discrimination from the global trade in slaves.

“It’s almost with an amazing sense of self congratulatory nature that we often celebrate this day, because we remember it as a day of great triumph. We ended slavery in British North America,” said Coun. Walcott.

“When we ended slavery, we essentially moved from one system of discrimination to another. And it took years, decades, and centuries of cultural change to actually find a space where we are starting to see some significant systemic changes in society.”

He suggested during his speech to Calgary City Council on Tuesday, that the terminology around slavery be changed by the City. Instead of using slave, which denotes an identity said Walcott, the term should be enslaved, which refers to the injustice done to a person.

“Instead of just giving a generic pitch, where it was like ‘we’re celebrating this on August 1, for Emancipation Day,’ it was let’s have a conversation about what it is that we should change together this year, to make that one small change that might compound to get next year, and then compounding the year after that and keep compounding until we do something very, very large.”

He said that he expects that the language that the City of Calgary uses around slavery will change quickly, but the larger question is whether the public will adopt the phrasing.

“Whenever I get notes on anything like that, we all very quickly make sure that we adjust the language. Within the city, you’re gonna see that happening relatively fast, because it’s a very significant shift and we have to be leaders in in making sure that we’re using language that is appropriate to the groups that we are discussing.”

“The question that I always have for myself is how many of the people who did hear what I had to say… internalized it enough to go remember when the time comes, if they ever find themselves in a conversation where this subject on the table.”

He said that this is work that can be done in conjunction with the other anti-racism work that is being undertaken by the City of Calgary to fully tell the story of the city.