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Black Canadians and Public Education by UNESCO Shows Missing Black History Education

As Clinton and I have discussed several times on this podcast, our education system is failing teaching Black History in an appropriate manner. Speaking for myself, growing up in New Brunswick I recall learning about important Black American’s, the Underground Railroad, slavery (as something that happened in America) and these learnings being predominantly done during Black History Month.

Furthermore, Clinton and I have been integral to the creation of the New Brunswick English Education Department’s Black Histories Curriculum, which echoes a recommendation made by the Commisioner of Systemic Racism, Manju Varma.

Tana Turner as part of the Canadian Commision for UNESCO has released their report Black Canadians and Public Education: A Scan of Elementary and Secondary School Curricula. This report examines what curriculums across the entire country teach in regards to Africans, Black Canadians, Black History, the comfortability of the teachers teaching this content and how this all impacts the students.

I was unsurprised by any recommendations, outcomes or opportunities for growth shared by Turner. What did surprise me were the names and historical moments she mentioned as key that I, a Black 29 year old Canadian woman had never heard of. Here are my thoughts on Turner’s findings, how it resonates with the curriculum we built and where I hope to see continued growth.

Turner’s intent with the report is to explore “how the presence and contributions of people of African descent are included in the provincial and territorial curricular documents that inform what students are taught in K-12 classrooms across Canada”. Turner adds that “the need for and benefits of incorporating Black representation in curricula have long been known. However, this study finds that provincial and territorial curricular documents across the country could do more to include Black representation in comprehensive and meaningful ways. This review found that Black Canadians are included only sporadically in curricula, with no mandatory expectations about including Black representation. As a result, it is up to individual teachers to include Black representation in their curricula—a task that depends upon each teacher’s knowledge, willingness, interest, race literacy and comfort in doing so”.

What is so concerning about the above statement, is the lack of regulation to ensure teachers are including Black representation. Speaking to my own high school teachers, they’ve expressed concern over some older teachers’ lack of willingness to discuss these issues. After the murder of George Floyd one university peer who is now a teacher, refused to comment on the murder due to her own discomfort, while simultaneously being expected to field the questions of her 30+ students as part of her job. More often than not, I fear that the discomfort around making mistakes during this discourse causes white teachers to stay silent – forgoing adding Black narratives to their curricula.

Turner notes that being educated about an incomplete Canadian history fails students and “ inadvertently reinforce anti-Black racism among students”. She adds, “Incorporating Black people into the curriculum more fully will help Canada realize the promise of diversity. The resulting educational experiences in all Canadian classrooms— not only classrooms in which Black students are present—will provide better opportunities for students to learn about the rich and diverse history of Canada. A more complete curriculum can be a vehicle to create greater social cohesion and respect for racial differences, preparing learners to enter a diverse, multiracial, multicultural society and world. Making sense of current events and exercising critical literacy when dealing with the material presented in various media sources and public discourse requires this broader understanding of history and lived experiences”.

She notes one very obvious places where the curricula seem to be failing: acknowledging the Canadian history of slavery.

Turner shares, “Most Canadians know that slavery existed in the United States. They know about the American civil rights movement, the fight to end segregated schools, and the sit-ins to ensure equal access to services. They are also familiar with key figures and events in the American civil rights movement, including Rosa Parks, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Brown v. Board of Education. Yet few know that slavery and segregated schools also existed in Canada or that sit-ins took place in this country to end discrimination in access to services. Few have heard the names and stories of important figures like Viola Desmond, Fred Christie, Hugh Burnett, Bromley Armstrong, Leonard Braithwaite and Mifflin Gibbs”. Not only can I confirm the lack of education around Canadian enforced slavery, as I did not know until 2019, but I only recognize one of the six names listed as ‘important figures’.

It is important to note some places where schools are doing some of the work. The most prominent East Coast place sharing Black Histories is Nova Scotia. Turner shares that in 1996, the African Canadian Services Branch of the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development was established. In 2002, African Canadian Studies courses began to be offered to high school students. In 2018, the Council on African Canadian Education recommended the development of an educational framework to support the achievement and well-being of Black students in Nova Scotia. “This recommendation was accepted by the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development in 2019, and led to the development of the African Nova Scotian Education Framework to support equitable education for Black learners.” What’s most interesting to note is the gap of time. It took 16 years for the Council on African Canadian Education to recommend an educational framework for Black students.

Turner also adds how provinces and territories develop curricula. “Provincial and territorial ministries of education develop curricula expectations in consultation with education stakeholders and partners. The ministries set mandatory expectations for what students must know and be able to do at the end of every grade or course. They regularly reviewed curricula to ensure these remain current, relevant and developmentally appropriate”.

The document outlines 9 key observations in looking at the curricula. Here is a breakdown of the Observations and my key takeaways.

Observation 1: Curricular documents give teachers the flexibility to integrate Black representation, explore Black history, and discuss anti-Black racism—or not.

Turner notes, “some have taken full advantage of these opportunities to integrate Black history and Black representation in ways that are identity-affirming and help all students to counter the negative stereotypes that society teaches them about Black people” but still some teachers may not incorporate it at all.

Observation 2: To integrate Black representation and explore Black history, teachers need better initial training, ongoing professional learning, and classroom-ready resources.

Turner shares that “In our conversations, teachers noted that improved racial literacy is important if they are to appropriately facilitate discussions about anti-Black racism”, a sentiment echoed in the Commissioner of Systemic Racism’s report for New Brunswick.

It’s also noted that changing the curriculum “will have little positive impact if Black students continue to be streamed into courses below their level of ability, if they experience disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion, and if teachers continue to hold low expectations of them”.

Again, it’s shared that Nova Scotia has done some work to mediate these issues. “Nova Scotia’s grade 11 African Canadian Studies course is designed to help learners understand the legacy of slavery and effects of colonialism on the continent of Africa and the African diaspora; develop insights into the history of the African Canadian community in Nova Scotia; understand the socio-economic and political dynamics as they relate to the African diaspora; and reflect on the contributions of African Canadians to their own community, Canada and the world. The course underscores the need for socio-economic and political reforms to achieve social justice for all members of Canadian society”. Ontario also offers a Black history course, “but it is an elective—and some teachers were of the view that electives cannot be seen as the solution to integrating Black history into curricula. Some felt that these courses are offered too late in students’ learning journeys (i.e., after they have already learned a great deal about Canadian history). Others told us that in their view, having separate Black history courses sends the message that Black history is separate from Canadian history”.

Observation 3: The curricula do not provide a coherent narrative of the presence of Black people in Canada because they include few African Canadians or Black histories

For example, Turner shaes “many do not mention Black Canadians like Mathieu da Costa, Olivier Le Jeune, Josiah Henson, Chloe Cooley or John Ware, to name a few”. Again, in this list shared I recognized only one of five names listed. Most important to note here is that by having a lack of Black presence and knowing few African Canadians, “when students learn about individual Black people and their stories, they do not necessarily learn about the broader history of Black people in Canada, their long presence in the country, or their important contributions”. Turner found that “Black histories appear only sporadically in curricular documents—even though a number of national historic events involved Black Canadians, including the Black Pioneer Migration to Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Underground Railroad, the Upper Canada Act of 1793 Against Slavery, Black Pioneers in British Columbia, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Black Militia Units in Upper Canada 1812–1850, the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Canada, the Enslavement of African People in Canada, and the West Indian Domestic Scheme”.

Observation 4: Equity and social justice are covered in many curricular documents, but anti-Black racism is not specifically mentioned, and the experiences of Black people are not always explored in discussions about equity and social justice

What we find as part of BlackLantic is that Black experiences are shared as trauma mining and not in ways that show Black people as having the same opportunities, joys, successes as their white peers or counterparts. Simultaneously Black people are often depicted as ‘the problem’, ‘criminals’, and in conversations around Justice and Equity, they do not often get thereparations they deserved.

Observation 5: Not all curricular documents acknowledge slavery in Canada

Turner makes this abundantly clear, “The first notable omission related to the history of Canada is slavery. There are key moments in the curriculum covering the history of the country where the Canadian experience of slavery should be mentioned, but is not. For example, in a grade 12 course in Ontario entitled “Equity and Social Justice: From Theory to Practice” (The Ontario Curriculum: Secondary, 2013), many examples are presented to allow students to “analyse the rationale for specific instances of social injustice in Canadian history.” Racial segregation is included in these examples, but slavery is not”.

Though she does share that Prince Edward Island includes a teachers’ guide to the play Prince Edward Island History: The Old Stock. “In this guide, the fact that slavery existed in Prince Edward Island is addressed along with the existence of racism toward people of African descent. While it is not a curricular document, it does provide useful information and lessons that teachers can use. Another exception, from Nova Scotia, is included in a high school course called African Canadian Studies.26 This course looks at the conditions of enslavement, strategies of resistance, and the implications of enslavement for African Canadian settlement”. That being said, the lack of information around slavery in Canada is shocking. The fact I was blissfully unaware of this stain on Canada’s record up until 4 years ago baffles me. We have colleagues and friends of the podcast who are still fighting to make it known that slavery occurred here, that many institutions are built with Black labour, Black slavery and continued Systemic Racism.

Observation 6: A number of curricular documents fail to include the Underground Railroad and stories about African Americans seeking refuge in Canada

What’s interesting to me about Observation 6 is that this seems to be the only part of Black Canadian history I was taught and it works as pro-Canadian propaganda. This idea that white Canadians helped save Black people by getting them to come to a perfectly equitable Canada is far from the truth and something we have shared at length.

Observation 7: Black people are not fully included in discussions of Canada’s role in international conflicts

Continuing on the idea that the Underground Railroad is all that was shared to me as key moments of Canadian Black history, Observation 7 rightly points out that Black people were part of the No. 2 Construction Battalion and that Black Canadians earned medals during some of the fiercest fighting in the war, including the battles of Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele and Ypres.

Observation 8: Black Canadians’ fight for human rights and contributions to Canada’s current human rights framework are not fully explored

Turner found that “Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is mentioned 21 times and Rosa Parks 11 times, yet there is no mention of Fred Christie, Hugh Burnett, Bromley Armstrong and others who played an important role in Canada’s human rights movement. Viola Desmond is included in the curricular documents of four provinces”. This directly correlates with the education I experienced from 2000-2012. Eleven years later, how has it not changed?

Observation 9: Africa could be better represented in the curriculum

The final Observation from Turner highlights that African Kingdom’s are never referenced in curricula. “In the curricular documents we reviewed that explore world events and history, Africa is mentioned somewhat less than other continents. We found that the kingdoms of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, China and Mesopotamia were included, while African kingdoms—such as the Kingdom of Aksum, the Mali Empire or the Songhai Empire, among others across the continent—were omitted”. Again, these are kingdom’s even I know so little about.

In the conclusion of this report, it is acknowledged that teaching Black History only in February does not provide “students with a holistic understanding of the presence, experiences and contributions of Black people”. Having Black children, teens and young adults educated on the range of complexities is identity-affirming. “Black representation is also identity-affirming: it instils students with pride and inspiration. A British researcher made the following strong point that is relevant in Canada as well: “When young people aren’t being taught about their history within Britain, their sense of identity and belonging is negatively impacted, as well as their social relations.”35 These studies echo what educators have known for years—that it is hard for children to learn when they feel undervalued, unimportant and unsafe.”

As someone who cites their substance abuse to the lack of self-esteem, emotional intelligence and self love, I feel I am a walking statistic proving that without proper representation Black people – primarily kids – can lose themselves. Turner adds, “Including Black representation throughout the curriculum can help Black students develop a positive racial identity, which is a protective factor against mental health issues and antisocial behaviours. Research highlights that a positive racial identity is a psychosocial protector in both mental health functioning and health risk behaviours, such as substance use.”

The research also suggests that instilling racial pride in Black teens reduces their vulnerability to the effects of racial discrimination and contributes to better mental health and educational outcomes. “Racial pride and preparation for possible bias was found by one study to be a protective factor against the damaging effects of racial discrimination by teachers and peers. The lack of adequate Black representation in the curriculum can also reinforce teachers’ negative perceptions of Black people, including their Black students. This may facilitate low expectations among some teachers, which can “subsequently damage pupils’ motivation and confidence, thus planting the seeds for underachievement throughout the school journey“.

As a final summary, Turner adds “a more complete history of Canada—one that includes Black people—would include systemic racism, recognize that the racial history of this country is distinct from that of the United States, and tell a distinct story of oppression, resistance and overcoming. Without these elements, history perpetuates the myth of a Canada that is not racist, which in turn perpetuates misperceptions about the inequities that exist in Canadian society today. Including this information will also help students make sense of the world they live in and help them navigate it”.

By and large this report reminds me that still, in 2023, we have an education system failing students. It feels that Canada hides under this ‘better younger sibling’ ideal compared to America while still committing genocide against the Indigenous people, lying about slavery, indentured servitude and systemic racism that has impacted Black people and other atrocities to other minorities.

Education, I cannot stress enough, is the best place to combat the misinformation that goes hand in hand with continued slavery. Allowing Black children to feel represented, white children – even all children – a place to ask questions so we can have better conversation and understanding will allow for a more harmonious future.

To read the report:

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