Last week, a book that included slurs against Black and Indigenous people was used to teach a grade nine humanities class in Vancouver. The book, Susanna Moodie: Roughing it in the Bush, was taught alongside a classroom activity that asked children to match the “politically incorrect” slurs with the “appropriate definitions,” in order to reflect the “racial, ethnic, and social prejudices of the time.” While the intention of the lesson was to condemn this language while giving it historical context, it failed to consider the consequences of exposing Black and Indigenous students in the classroom to such derogatory and potentially harmful content. Framing such degrading language as simply “politically incorrect” not only undermines the gravity of the issue, but also refutes the existence of Canadian settler- colonialism and anti-black racism as ongoing injustices.
This failed attempt to properly address Black and Indigenous histories should not be regarded as one teacher’s personal failure, but as a systemic problem. Although Canada is nominally committed to including more Black and Indigenous history in public school curriculums, provinces are not legally obliged to do so, and thus there is no standardized way to teach this material. In 2015, only two provinces offered mandatory training for educators to improve awareness on Indigenous cultures, while five provinces do not even offer Indigenous history as optional material. Meanwhile, multiple studies have confirmed that anti-blackness is prevalent at all levels of education in Canada. In a 2009 report by the Quebec Board of Black Educators, many Black students and educators emphasized the personal value of seeing fair representation of Black histories and cultures in the curriculum, describing the experience as a “restoration of individual dignity and pride.”
To address these problems, the federal government must provide resources for Black and Indigenous peoples to be able to educate children and young people for themselves, instead of expecting individual teachers to facilitate educational reforms. This can be done, for instance, by providing more funding to Indigenous schools and programs, which are currently neglected by federal funding models. The Trudeau government is backlogged on their promise to spend $2.6 billion on Indigenous primary and secondary education, and government-funded reserve schools receive 25-30 per cent less funding than provincially run, non-reserve schools. While the Canadian government has promised no funding to initiatives specifically directed at Black educators, provincial and school- district level efforts have been made to increase representation and provide more employment opportunities to Black educators. In Ontario, where only 10 per cent of teachers are racialized despite a rising racialized population, many are calling for workplace anti- discrimination and harassment policies that target racial biases in employment. Additionally, the last Quebec report on the issue outlined similar recommendations for more positive images and role modeling of Black people in education.
Mcgill students must interrogate the ways in which Black and Indigenous histories are taught throughout the education system, including in the Mcgill context. We should aim to talk to our professors and department heads, and advocate for an emphasis on Black and Indigenous narratives and more equitable hiring practices. Students should refer to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, and the Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators’ “The Voices of Ontario Black Educators” report, as starting points in holding the government and educational institutions accountable for their promises.