For Rosemary Sadlier, witnessing the unveiling of a plaque commemorating Chloe Cooley was the culmination of hard work and dedication over many years of her life.
Standing in Navy Hall, where the Parliament of Upper Canada met 231 years ago to debate the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery, Sadlier gathered with Niagara Parks officials and town members on Saturday to watch the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada present the new plaque.
Cooley was a Black enslaved woman whose struggles with her violent enslaver more than two centuries ago precipitated the Act to Limit Slavery.
Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society from 1993 to 2015, played an instrumental role in Canada’s decision to make Black History Month an annual celebration in 1995.
She was also a leading voice in the recognition of Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day, which members of Parliament voted to officially recognize it in 2021, and is the nominator and proponent for the national recognition of Cooley.
At Navy Hall on Saturday, Sadlier said she was “thrilled.”
“I have, so far, been able to touch on all aspects of how the acknowledgement of slavery and the end of slavery has come about in this country,” Sadlier told The Lake Report.
Cooley, she added, was just one of hundreds of enslaved people alive at that time in North America — including some in what was then Upper Canada.
The Act to Limit Slavery did not abolish slavery for all in the province but made it so that no new enslaved people could be brought into Upper Canada and mandated that children born to an enslaved woman after the law was passed would be freed at age 25.
That statute is often cited as making Upper Canada the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to pass a law freeing enslaved people, though slavery was not abolished throughout the empire until 1834.
It preceded the abolition of slavery in the United States — through the passing of the 13th Amendment to its constitution — by 72 years.
However, Sadlier said that some Canadians do not understand that racism is present in our country as well as in the United States.
“With all respect to what Lt.-Gov. John Graves Simcoe did, what if he had done it sooner?” Sadlier said, referring to the lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada who instructed the attorney general to draft legislation imposing limits on enslavement.
“In the time that passed where people got wind that legislation was about to be passed that would impact slave owners, they were able to protect their ‘assets,’ and Chloe was an asset,” Sadlier said. “That’s another unfortunate reality of our history.”
She explained that a big part of her personal history is that her connection to the Underground Railroad.
“I know that my ancestors on my mother’s side were from Virginia. What were their options?” she said.
“What would they have done around the time that they had the opportunity to leave? Where would I generations later have found myself?”
Sadlier referred to this history as a “major butterfly effect,” impacting slavery and the reality of the possibility of Black migration in early Canada’s history.
Rochelle Bush, the owner of Tubman Tours Canada, is also a descendant of freedom seekers and shared with the audience what honouring Cooley means for her.
She explained that it never dawned on her that people of African descent were enslaved right here in Niagara – until she read more about Cooley’s story in a 1993 reference book called “Slavery and Freedom in Niagara.”
“I give thanks to Chloe Cooley because her unfortunate circumstances made it possible for hundreds of enslaved African Americans to seek refuge in Canada, my family included,” Bush told the crowd.
The plaque is to be installed at the Niagara River scenic outlook in Queenston, near Brock’s Monument, at a later date. Visitors are urged to stop by and bring loved ones to read Cooley’s story.