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Virtual Owen Sound Emancipation Festival set for Sunday

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As Owen Sound Emancipation Festival organizers prepare to mark this year’s event with a “virtual experience” Sunday, planning has already begun for next year’s 160th anniversary at Harrison Park.

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“What we’re doing this year is giving people a snapshot of the festival and what it’s all about,” chair Jeff Smith said Tuesday in an interview.

This will be the second year in a row that the festival will take place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But organizers are planning to return to an in-person event for the milestone celebration in 2022, with discussions now underway about the Speaker’s Forum, which Smith said will be “very interesting,” as well as the festival’s entertainment schedule and vendor list.

The 160th event is set for Aug. 5 to 7, 2022.

“It’s going to be a very big festival as far as next year goes,” he said.

The Owen Sound Emancipation Festival, originally called the Emancipation Day Picnic, commemorates the British Commonwealth Emancipation Act of Aug. 1, 1834.

Since 1862, descendants of those who escaped slavery and found freedom in Canada have been gathering in Owen Sound – the northern-most terminus of the Underground Railroad – for fellowship and reflection with family and the community, to share memories, enjoy a picnic and listen to music.

The festival is now the longest continually running emancipation picnic in North America.

Smith said this year’s virtual event will be the first since Bill M-36 passed unanimously in the Canadian House of Commons to officially recognize each Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day in Canada.

The festival will be launching a video at noon Sunday as an alternative to the festivities that normally take place at Harrison Park and other venues in the Owen Sound area, including Grey Roots Museum.

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The video, which will be available at youtube.com/OwenSoundEmancipationFestival, will feature speakers and performers sharing compelling stories and compositions of freedom, legacy and inclusion, according to festival organizers.

Speakers will include: Nova Scotia Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, who proposed a private member’s bill in 2018 supporting the recognition of Emancipation Day in Canada; Richmond Hill Liberal MP Majid Jowhari, who introduced the bill in the House of Commons; and Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound Conservative MP Alex Ruff, who seconded the bill.

Other speakers include Hamilton Centre MP Matthew Green, who spoke about his childhood memories of his family’s annual trips to Owen Sound for the Emancipation picnic while speaking on the bill, as well as Owen Sound Mayor Ian Boddy, Dr. Afua Cooper and Ontario Poet Laureate Randell Adjei.

The video will also include performances by Bobby Dean Blackburn, Brooke Blackburn, Harrison Kennedy, Michael Dunston, Eugene Smith, Josh Ritchie and others.

Smith said the virtual celebration is an opportunity to let people know that the festival is still alive and well, with organizers planning next year’s in-person celebration, despite two years of not being able to hold it at Harrison Park.

“We strive to uphold the integrity of our organization and preserve a 159-year legacy to honour Black ancestors and their stories of adversity and determination,” he said in a news release.

“We stand together with Indigenous people and other ethnicities to fight for social equality, justice and freedom. The support from our volunteers and the community, including Bruce Power Generation has been wonderful, and we look forward to celebrating the 160th anniversary in 2022.”

More information on the festival can be found online at emancipation.ca.

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