Festival organizers and guests pose for a photo with Lawrence Hill, the keynote speaker for this year’s Emancipation Festival Speaker’s Forum. From left to right are: Nathan Segal, Dorothy Abbott, Aly Boltman, Blaine Courtney, Lawrence Hill, Brent Courtney, Terri Jackson, David Sereda, and Rachel Taylor.

Celebrating their 155th anniversary this year, the Owen Sound Emancipation Festival (OSEF) broke a Roxy Theatre record on August 4 for most seats filled at a summer weeknight event, nearly selling out the 400-seat auditorium. With Lawrence Hill as this year’s keynote speaker, guests from across the province gathered to celebrate Emancipation Day with one of Ontario’s most treasured authors.

Though he spends most of his summer days working on new literary projects and spending time with family, Mr. Hill typically makes room in his schedule for one speaking engagement each summer. With the OSEF marking a special milestone in 2017, the world-renowned author was pleased to help make this year’s festivities a big hit. Arriving early to sign books, he was greeted by a seemingly endless lineup of eager admirers. 

During his address, Mr. Hill spoke about his current writing projects, the indelible legacy of his parents, and stressed the importance of the OSEF as a time to reflect on our history and celebrate how far we have come. He also took the opportunity to warn against smug finger-pointing and social complacency here in Canada, noting that we often like to think of ourselves as being above the problems facing our neighbours overseas and south of the border. Hill remarked that while slavery and segregation no longer exist, other forms of systemic racism and social injustice still plague our society. Hill’s message is that “to be too self-satisfied is sort of an excuse to do nothing” and there is still work to be done.

Barry Penhale (centre) introduced  Lawrence Hill (left) at the OSEF Speaker’s Forum on Friday, August 4. As long-time colleagues and friends of Hill’s, Barry and his wife Jane Gibson (pictured here on the right) set up a book table at Harrison Park on Saturday to showcase and sell the wide array of Lawrence Hill’s past publications.

Established in 1862, the OSEF is the longest running emancipation celebration in North America, held in what was once Sydenham (now Owen Sound) the most northerly terminus of the Underground Railroad in Ontario.  Over the course of three days, the Emancipation Festival featured a Speaker’s Forum at Roxy Theatre (with Lawrence Hill); the Ancestor’s Breakfast, Cairn Ceremony, and Festival Picnic in Harrison Park; and a Gospel performance and photo exhibition (North is Freedom, by Yuri Dojc) held at Grey Roots Museum. 

An incredible visual experience and a captivating approach to historical storytelling, North is Freedom is a collection of photographs featuring the descendants of those who escaped slavery in the United States and found their way to freedom here in Ontario. Among those captured by photographer Yuri Dojc are Blaine Courtney, Chair of the OSEF, along his brother Brent, sister Cindee, and Brent’s daughter, Robbin McGregor; Dorothy Abbott, Treasurer of the OSEF and the Ontario Black History Society, who poses with her daughter Arja Pennanen Lytle; Bobby Dean Blackburn, the headliner for the 2017 OSEF Picnic and one of Yonge Street’s R&B legends; and Steven Cook, Site Manager of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario. 

Canadian R&B artist Bobby Dean Blackburn poses at the keyboard before his performance at the Picnic in Harrison Park on August 5.

The Ontario Historical Society was pleased to join friends and colleagues for this year’s celebration in Owen Sound. It was a delight to see Ontarians gathering together to celebrate our history with such passion, excitement, and camaraderie. Jan Bell, an American cyclist, travelled by bicycle all the way to Owen Sound from Mobile, Alabama to attend the Emancipation Festival. Friends and family of descendants also travelled great distances to reunite in celebration of the 155th anniversary of this historic weekend. Though the OSEF has been taking place since 1862, they were officially incorporated as a not-for-profit organization through affiliation with the Ontario Historical Society in May 2006. 

OSEF Chair Blaine Courtney announced that he will be stepping down this year, making way for new leadership and making room for new opportunities. The OHS would like to recognize Blaine for his years of hard work and dedication to this event. 

For more information on the OSEF, visit their website, www.emancipation.ca. For more information on North is Freedom, visit www.facebook.com/northisfreedom/

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