The Chronicle Herald (Metro)
Education ‘key’ to ending racism
Last fall, Claudine Bonner returned to work at Acadia University in virtual classrooms filled with eager students wanting to better understand anti-black racism.
A professor in the sociology department at the Wolfville university, Bonner teaches Canadian race relations as well as race relations at the global level.
“The conversations last September were amazing. Students came back to school feeling in some ways robbed,” Bonner recalls.
After a summer of racial awakening and reckoning, spurred by the murder of George Floyd, Bonner said her students were perplexed as to how they had undergone years of education, but had barely scratched the surface of Black history in Canada and the experiences of Black Canadians.
“Why didn't I know this?” some students asked.
“Why didn't I know more?” others asked.
A year after the global uprising against anti-black racism and other forms of racism, Bonner said it's become clear “the extent to which we have failed to recognize a lot of issues of anti-Blackness historically and in the contemporary moment” in Canada.
And she said it's crucial that more history is taught so Canadians can learn from it.
“The reality is, historically, we haven't taught the history in our schools. Most people don't know enough about Black communities, the history of the Black presence in Canada, what the experience of Black Canadians have been and continue to be,” Bonner added.
WHERE TO BEGIN
But where should we begin?
At the kindergarten level, says Megan Neaves, a teacher at Astral Drive Junior High in Dartmouth.
In Nova Scotia, she said most students don't learn much Black history until Grade 11 — and that's only if they take an optional course called African Canadian Studies.
“And that's separate from Canadian studies, which is a problem in the system itself. And then (the Mi'kmaw Studies course) is also separate from (the Canadian History course). So we're doing a huge disservice to Black and Indigenous students if they're only learning their history in high school,” she said.
“For white students too, it's important so that they can understand that no race is more superior than another. And that's a problem in all of our society, we condition whiteness as a norm.”
If white people aren't learning the truth about history and not learning more history told through an Afrocentric perspective, "they often will blame Black communities because they don't understand why (Black people) have all these barriers and challenges in place, because they weren't taught how their ancestors have created those challenges and then used the current systems in our society to keep those barriers and challenges in place," Neaves added.
This, in turn, results in fewer white people understanding why generational wealth gaps exist among Black Canadians and why Black people "are where they are today," according to Neaves.
Greg Birkett, an educator, author and spoken word artist based in Toronto, believes schools should “infuse this curriculum” using a “vertical, cross-curricular approach.”
In other words, students would learn Black Canadian history from kindergarten up to Grade 12 and in every subject area including maths and sciences, not just social sciences and language arts, Birkett explained.
“You can't wait until students get into high school to present this material to them and tell them that it's important now. For them, it's going to seem as though, ‘ Why are you presenting this to me now, when the first nine or 10 years of my scholastic career, we haven't discussed it at all,'” he said.
Bonner said Canada has the “February blitz” every year in which Black History Month rolls around and people delve into Black history. But, she said it's mostly African-american history that tends to be shared during those periods and the accomplishments of Black Canadians are often left out.
“Everybody knows Martin Luther King, everybody knows Rosa Parks and so on, but how much do you know about the Black history of your own province, how much do you know about the Black history of your own community? Is there one?” Bonner added.
TEACHERS, SCHOOL STAFF NEED MORE EDUCATION, TOO
As important as it is that students learn Black history, Neaves said it's key that the ones doing the teaching of that history are well informed.
Despite having three degrees including a masters of education and being qualified to teach history, Neaves said the main focus of the Black history she learned throughout her schooling was on the transatlantic slave trade through a Eurocentric framework.
She said she had to take it upon herself to learn Black history by reading books by various Black authors so that she could then teach it to students in a unit she developed called "Empowering Changes."
The transatlantic slave trade saw millions of enslaved Africans transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th century. It was the largest forced migration of a human population in history.
“The problem is that many teachers go through their whole education having only learned about the transatlantic slave trade and many Black students are also going through that same educational experience,” Neaves said.
“And so what is that doing to the subconscious mind, if they're only learning about people of colour in inferior positions throughout history?”
Birkett echoed these remarks, adding that the onus shouldn't just be on Black educators and educators who have a vested interest in social justice issues to teach Black history, but that all school staff need to acknowledge anti-black racism in order for a “culture shift to occur.”
“If someone could actually go through our system to the highest level and get a degree in Canadian studies and not know about segregation and not know about enslavement and all of these other acts of anti-black racism that we see in our country, that speaks volumes,” he said.
Birkett and his sister, who is also an educator in Toronto, recently partnered with Nelson Education to present a nine-part webinar series called “See Us, Learn Us: Teaching About the Black Canadian Experience,” available at bigmarker.com/series/see-us-learn-us-teaching-abo/series_summit.
The series teaches about the Black Canadian presence and experience, offering resources for teachers to use “the next day in classrooms,” according to Birkett.
“There are tons of resources that are available to them, but they have to be willing to search and sign up for these kinds of (things),” he said.
EDUCATION ‘KEY FACTOR’ TO ERADICATING SYSTEMIC RACISM
With the aftermath of George Floyd's murder sparking many “uncomfortable,” but important conversations about systemic racism, Bonner said as much as “we're seeing a drive and an interest societally” to “address the ills of society,” people need to be in for the long haul.
“It takes a long time for systemic change,” she said.
“I know that we're living inside a moment and there is a slowing of the tide right now and I keep saying to people, ‘Yeah, we gotta get this done before it's not sexy anymore.' … I think we have moved slightly, we have seen change, but is it sustainable change?”
Ultimately, Birkett said it's education that is “the key factor to eradicating systemic racism."
“All students need to understand and acknowledge and be made aware of systemic racism and understand it's not just a Black issue. Though it impacts Black people, it's not just a Black issue, it's a human issue. If Derek Chauvin had seen George Floyd as a human, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation, but the humanity is lacking or seeing humanity in others is lacking and that's where real education needs to take place.”