Ontario government urged to add Black history to education curriculum
TORONTO -- An Ontario historian says Black history needs to become a mandatory part of the province’s curriculum instead of leaving it up to teachers to choose what kids will learn.
Natasha Henry, the head of the Ontario Black History Society, told CTV News Toronto that her organization has been trying to push the province for decades to have Black history part of learning mandated in Ontario.
“It's an example of systemic anti-Black racism in the country,” Henry said. “There isn't a level of recognition that's consistent as it relates to the 400-year presence of Black people here in Canada.”
Her organization recently looked through a Nelson textbook that is used to teach Canadian history to children across the province who are in Grade 8. Of the 255 pages, only 13 pages made mention of Black history in Canada.
“Not 13 full pages, but mentions on at least 13 pages,” Henry said.
Henry said the way the history of Canada is currently taught is very Eurocentric, which is problematic because its shapes student’s perspectives on the origins of Canada, who contributed, who developed and who was there.
“What is that people then receive around the black presence here in Canada? Is either that it didn't exist, or it's just recent or that that there were no black contributions,” Henry said. “Curriculum is not neutral. So whatever it is explicitly outlined and even what it excludes is teaching people something.”
Henry said that to put an end to the systemic exclusion of Black history from the curriculum and the deconstruction of the white narrative is an important step in tackling anti-Black racism in schools across the province.
A report released earlier this month by the Toronto District School Board’s human rights office found a troubling amount of racism at its schools despite being one of the most diverse boards in the country.
The data, which examined reported incidents of discrimination between 2018 and 2020, indicated that the board has “a serious racism problem” that “gives cause for deep concern.”
“Race or race related grounds is the most frequent ground of complaint received by the human rights office making up 54 per cent of all complaints alleging a human rights violation,” the report stated.
“Specifically, incidents citing anti-Black racism exceeded all other incidents reported by a wide margin.”
A spokesperson for Ontario’s Minister of Education Stephen Lecce told CTV News Toronto in a statement that the province is working to counter racism in the province’s education system.
“We know there is more work to do,” spokesperson Caitlin Clark said on Friday.
“The minister believes that Ontario’s curriculum must better reflect the diversity and experiences of every Ontarian — notably of racialized Canadians — who have made immense contributions to our economy, democracy, and society.”
Henry said the ministry should work with Black professionals and scholars to develop and revise the current curriculum.
“It should no longer be an optional topic where teachers can choose what to teach and what not to teach,” Henry said. “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.”
“If we are attempting to reckon with the impact of anti-Black racism, the curriculum must be responsive.”
Dr. George Dei, a professor at University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, told CTV News Toronto on Friday that Black history can’t become something only taught during Black History Month, but must be part of learning in schools year round.
“African history is central to really talking about Canadian history. Not just in terms of Black and African presence, but also in terms of our contributions to the building of the nation,” Dei said. “That's what makes the curriculum issue so very important.”
In a teacher’s guide, Henry writes about the importance of all residents in Ontario to learn about how Black Canadians contributed to the historical, cultural, and economic development of Canada through their resistance, struggles and skills.
She said she wants the countless stories of Black scientists, entrepreneurs, workers, artists and other local people taught in schools across the province.
Henry also told CTV News Toronto that students need to learn about the stories of people who were enslaved in Canada, a history many people in Ontario are not aware of. She added that people need to learn about the civil rights issues Black people have faced in the country.
Henry said that far too often Black history is taught from an American perspective here in Ontario, and in the rest of Canada.
“The Black Canadian presence really has not been dealt with,” she said. “There tends to be a stronger American focus like on Martin Luther King and American experiences as opposed to Canadian experiences.”
She shares some of her recommended topics for every grade level in Ontario in a blog published to her website, where she writes that the “power of Black stories benefits all students and can be integrated and shared in all grades.”
Professor Dei echoed Henry’s recommendations, saying stories about people are central to educating students about Black History.
“We can’t talk about history simply in terms of events, you have to also talk about it in terms of knowledge and lived experiences,” he said.
“We need to have it in the curriculum to give students a sense of rootedness, a sense of identity, a sense of connectedness.”