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Black History Education in Ontario: Biased and Undertaught

Olivier le Jeune, the first recorded Black enslaved person, arrived in New France (Canada) in 1628. Since then, people of African descent in Canada have gone through 200 years of slavery and many more years of subordination, policing, and resistance. Black people have been in Canada for over 400 years and yet our history is hardly ever talked about in school. On the rare occasions, it is discussed, it often portrays Canada as a savior and pushes the narrative that racism is an American issue, thus erasing Black Canadian people’s suffering and struggle. 

As a current high school student in Ontario, I have first-hand experience with learning biased Black history and the lack of Black Canadian history education.

Black Canadian history in my classrooms often presented Canada as “more tolerant” in comparison to the United States. I learned about the British liberation of Black American Loyalists and Canada being a safe haven for enslaved American people escaping through the Underground Railroad. Lessons learned in school seem to have omitted the fact that Black people liberated from American slavery still faced subjugation and racism in Canada. This selective teaching of Black history, among other factors, led people to believe that racism is foreign to us and is only an issue in America. 

This dissociation from Black Canadian history is especially present during Black History Month. We mainly talk about American activists, politicians, inventors, and artists, even though we live in Canada. Black people have made many contributions in Canada, yet our activism and our triumphs are rarely honoured. Our presence in Canada gets reduced to slavery, despite having an enduring history here.

Since Black history is an optional part of Ontario’s curriculum, teachers are not obligated to teach it and textbooks don’t need to provide extensive education on it. Educators get to choose what topics of Black Canadian history they want to teach, which means that their bias can affect their choices. Black history is usually taught outside of the textbook, which makes it difficult to provide evidence of biased and misrepresentative Black history education, beyond anecdotes from students like myself.

One organization made it their mission to show that there is a lack of Black history education in Ontario. In October 2020, the Ontario Black History Society  (OBHS) started a campaign called the #BlackedOutHistory. When looking through a Nelson 8th-grade history textbook, they found that only 13 pages out of 255 mentioned Black history. Note that not all those pages were full pages dedicated to Black history, rather, there were just mentions on 13 pages.

For decades, the OBHS has been urging the Ontario government to make Black history education mandatory in the curriculum. The Head of the organization, Natasha Henry, has been researching Black Canadian history for years and suggests that the Ministry of Education work with Black scholars and professionals to revise the curriculum. 

“It should no longer be an optional topic where teachers can choose what to teach and what not to teach,” Henry said in an interview with CTV News. “It really is about ensuring Black history, the 400-year presence of people of African descent here in this country is integrated into the curriculum from K through to 12.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Minister of Education responded saying:

“The ministry works to ensure that curriculum is inclusive and reflects the diversity of the Ontario population, as well as provides students learning opportunities related to anti-racism and anti-discrimination education.”

Natasha Henry felt unsatisfied with the response. She said that “anything that does not respond in-kind with the request is not sufficient”.

With the support of the OBHS, school boards, and other stakeholders, the Toronto Youth Cabinet (TYC) also called on the Ministry of Education to implement Black history education (among other things) in a letter.

This letter was sent on October 27th, 2020, and the Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, has yet to make a statement on the action that needs to be taken.

Henry’s aforementioned dissatisfaction with the government’s response is understandable. The OBHS and Black scholars have been advocating for the revision of the curriculum for decades, yet no tangible action has been taken. 

Afua Cooper, professor at Dalhousie University, a specialist in Black history and author, told Radio-Canada (Canada’s national French public broadcaster) that an inclusive curriculum was written by experts in 1977, but it wasn’t implemented. She also mentioned that around 20 years ago, she wrote a grade 7 and 10 Black history curriculum for the Toronto District School Board. Unfortunately, the project didn’t end up going anywhere either.

The fight for an inclusive curriculum has been ongoing and it is important not to lose hope. Work to promote anti-racism in schools should also include revisions of the curriculum to better represent Black Canadians. Social media allows us to share information and get easier access to certain resources, so we should use that to our advantage. 

Here are some calls for action and educative resources :

CALLS FOR ACTION :

Call For Action To Tackle Anti-Black, Brown and Indigenous Racism in Ontario Schools

*Unfortunately, the links to send emails to officials only work using a phone. Copy the spreadsheet in your drive and you can access the links through your phone.

Contact your local members of provincial parliament (MPP)

Toronto Youth Cabinet Petition 

-Spread awareness on social media, within your community or school

Resources :

As Canadians, we tend to consume a lot of American media, so it’s important for us to also look into Black Canadian history and through books, documentaries, podcasts, or other resources. 

One book that completely changed the way I perceive the world around me was “Policing Black Lives” by Robyn Maynard. It gave me a great understanding of anti-blackness in Canada, from slavery to the present.

Other books: The Kids Book of Black Canadian History by Rosemary Sadlier, The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole

Podcasts : 

https://www.rcinet.ca/en/podcasts/portraits-of-black-canadians/  Short 3-Minute episodes on Black Canadians that helped shape this country (available on multiple platforms)

https://www.cbc.ca/listen/cbc-podcasts/203-the-secret-life-of-canada This podcast discusses some of the country’s hidden stories. “The Province of Jamaica” episode is about Jamaican immigration to Canada but there are many different episodes on the different groups that shape this country.

Resources for educators and people that are willing to learn further:

https://www.etfo.ca/SupportingMembers/Resources/Pages/365.aspx

https://teachingafricancanadianhistory.weebly.com/ by Natasha Henry. Offers workshops, resources on films/documentaries, African Canadian history sites in Ontario, lesson plans, and more

Sources:

https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1745986/histoire-noirs-autochtones-ecole-curriculum-obhs

https://www.bttoronto.ca/videos/out-of-255-pages-in-the-textbook-only-13-pages-contain-black-history/

https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/black-history-ontario-education-video_ca_5f91cb7bc5b695a32fb1835b

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