“Stories of Black Excellence” Missing from Canadian History: Educators – National


The most important part of Jay Williams’ identity, particularly at school, is that he is a black man — a black 8th grade educator, public speaker, and anti-racism activist based in Toronto.

He says many of his experiences as a black person flow into his teaching and he doesn’t shy away from it.

“When it comes to the history of black people in school and education, the struggle is that … you’re going to hear a lot about slavery and the fact that my ancestors came across the seas in servitude, and there’s a lot of doom and gloom,” says Williams.

“But our ancestors didn’t start out as slaves,” he said, speaking to Global News via Zoom.

Jay Williams stands next to a ‘How to Be an Anti-Racist’ bulletin board that was put up on the first day of Black History Month at the school where he teaches.

He said that his ancestors and people were and still are “kings and queens” – scientists, doctors, artists, teachers and all sorts of inspirational people who deserve to be singled out.

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“The stories of black excellence are what’s missing from the way black history and education is taught in schools … across Canada,” says Williams.

The history of black people in Canada is more than 400 years old but remains largely untold, according to Canadian historian Afua Cooper, who teaches at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS

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“Standing on the shoulders of generations before her,” says Cooper, as she leads a project announced last year called A Black People’s History of Canada.

The project will create new learning materials and digital media about the history of Black Canadians that will be published online in English and French and shared with teachers and students in elementary and secondary schools across the country.

It is a three-year project “with the potential to extend the celebration and recognition of black Canadian history beyond Black History Month by bringing it into classrooms throughout the year,” according to Dalhousie University.

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Cooper says the intention behind the project is to help create a national curriculum standard for black history classes. There is currently no national curriculum as education in Canada is provincial, but this project will be the closest thing to a national one.

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The availability of the material allows students across the country to receive specific information about the black community, regardless of where they are located.

However, Cooper says it comes down to the teachers and whether they are willing to put in the work rather than go through “the same old Eurocentric stories.”

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Cooper explains that currently in school textbooks there may not necessarily be a unit on black history but, for example, a unit on “change in British North America” ​​which Cooper says is “left to the teacher to interpret.”

“What does that mean? If you’re a creative teacher… you’ll look at your teaching through the lens of justice and try to reflect the diversity of Canadian history, by mentioning the black men who worked on the railroad lines or the Chinese men , the workers were the railroads.”

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And when teachers don’t do enough to reflect the diversity of Canadians, Cooper says it creates “educational gaps,” and one possible solution to this is to include black history in school curricula.

READ MORE: West Island graduate bemoans Quebec over lack of black history education in schools

“A teacher can choose not to (teach black history) even if you put resources on their lap, so school boards now have to issue a mandate,” says Cooper. “We are in an environment where things are prescribed. If we care about every Canadian and that we all have equal rights, then a child has the right to know about their heritage. Then maybe that needs to be mandated.”

William says he believes that all anti-oppression work needs to be included in school curricula and made compulsory in teacher training programs as well.

He says teachers are required to attend mandatory workshops each year on subjects and issues such as COVID-19, and a push toward black history or black excellence is possible as the focus can be in one of those workshops.

“If you’ve decided to become an educator and tell me you still have a European, whitewashed approach to education… after everything that’s happened in the last year and a half,” he said, pointing to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement”, … then you are in the wrong area. You have to leave class.”

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In the meantime, Williams said he will continue to empower and educate all of his students in critical thinking.

Students need to be asked “questions such as what do you think the traditional whitewashed Eurocentric approach to education is? And how do you feel about it? Or whose voices are missing from the pages of sources that have them?” he says. The way forward is to “make them think”.

Cooper says there’s a critical mass of students across the country who won’t ask permission to do things.

“They go out there and set up their own blogs, they do their own research beyond those 400 years in North America, and they go back into pre-colonial African history,” says Cooper.

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“So I have a lot of hope in this generation and I’m very optimistic… We’ve had breakthroughs, and it’s not because the system has passed those rights on. It was the local people themselves, black communities, who stood up and demanded these rights,” she added.

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