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Nov. 14, 2018 | Wednesday
Local News
Voices of Freedom Park officially open
Voices of Freedom park saw its officially opening ceremony Nov. 2, 2018. (Richard Harley/Niagara Now)

A crowd of about 80 people gathered on Regent Street in the cold mist on Friday afternoon to celebrate the official opening of Voices of Freedom park in Old Town.

The park, previously used as a lawn bowling green, is now open to the public.

Inside, visitors can stroll a path to a series of metal monuments which tell the tales of multiple black Canadians who helped influence Canadian history by fighting for racial equality and contributing to the abolition of slavery in the country.

Betty Disero, co-chair of the VOF park committee, spoke to the crowd, noting the significance Niagara-on-the-Lake had in ending slavery. She told stories of Chloe Cooley, a freed slave who was taken back to the US by her former owner, and of Solomon Moseby, who was incarcerated in Canada but managed to flee after locals both white and black rioted in the streets to stop him from being extradited to the US.

Disero thanked all involved in the creation of the VOF park, including committee co-chair John Hawley. 

Wilma Morrison, honorary chair of VOF, also spoke to the crowd.

Morrison, who recently found out her great grandfather was born in NOTL in the 1800s, said, “See, black people were here before the 70s,” receiving a good laugh from the audience.

She said it’s an honour to have been named honorary chair of the park committee, and spoke of a time when she once tried to advocate for the history of black Canadians, “But no one was there to listen.”

“I don’t think anyone really understands what we’ve been though in the past 90 years. And to see this see this become a project and success — and the support from the community — that’s the wonderful thing,” Morrison said.

“It’s been an honour and a joy to be a part of it, and I thank you all so much — all of the people who contributed to building this monument … I really couldn’t ask for more.”

Those who attended were also given a commemorative coin marking the opening of the park.

The afternoon also saw words from local Tim Johnson, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Pablo Rodriguez, St. Catharines MP Chris Bittle and NOTL's Deputy Lord Mayor John Wiens.

“The Canada-US border is very real here in Niagara … but Freedom’s Line of course, is much more than a determined and enforced legal border. It’s also a metaphor for life and liberty. It’s an aspiration, a set of ethical and moral principles, and a daily challenge to everyone in society to break the lingering bonds of intolerance, ignorance, racial prejudice and hatred."

 

Wilma Morrison (right) speaks to the crowd during the opening of Voices of Freedom park in Old Town Niagara-on-the-Lake. (Richard Harley)

The afternoon also saw a performance of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are-a-Changin” by vocalist Alana Bridgewater and pianist Robi Botos, and a reading of Remembering Canada’s Best Kept WW1 Secret: The No. 2 Construction Battalion, performed by Allan Louis of the Shaw Festival.

The concept for VOF park was created by Raymond Tung, the Town's urban design specialist, and is designed to be an interactive experience "both visually any physically," according to a Town media release sent Nov. 2. The release said a web developer has been hired by the VOF committee to produce an online app that will let park-goers take part in a mobile walking tour of all black history sites within the Town, beginning with the Voices of Freedom Park.

An educational component dedicated to the history of black Canadians is also in development for schools visiting the Niagara Historical Society Museum, planned to launch in Black History Month (February, 2019).

The VOF park project received $338,000 from the federal government — through the Building Communities through Arts and Heritage Legacy Fund, administered by the Department of Canadian Heritage — for its role in showcasing local arts and heritage.

“The Government of Canada has been a proud partner of Voices of Freedom from the outset,” said Rodriguez. “Projects like this one help foster connections across communities and encourage us to build a stronger future for everyone. Our government will continue to work hard to promote inclusion, and show how diversity is a source of strength and pride.”

Funding for the park has also come from a variety of sources including a Canada 150 grant and an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant from the Provincial Government of Ontario; a Niagara Investment in Culture grant from the Niagara Region; as well as funds from the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake; and private donations from local businesses and residents.

The private donations were crucial to the completion of the park, the Town release said.

Kevin Turcott, parks and recreation manager for the Town of NOTL, said he would like to thank the hard work of everyone involved in the VOF park project — "town council, donors, the Voices of Freedom committee, Town staff and the many contractors that were involved in constructing this park. This project wouldn’t have happened without your support ... A special thank you to Dawland Farms and Landscaping who have worked tirelessly into the night over the past few weeks to ensure the park is ready for the official opening.”

"We look forward to preserving this beautiful park for the years to come,” Turcotte said. 

2018 marks the 225th anniversary of the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada.

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