An excerpt from a Quebec textbook depicting slavery has raised concern among some parents on the legitimacy of the province's curriculum, and whether it promotes an erasure of history.
Sarah Dorner's daughter, a grade four student at École Lajoie school in Outremont, recently pointed out an excerpt in her history, geography and civics textbook about the life of Henry Brown, an American slave who was betrayed by his master.
The story takes up only a few pages in the textbook, a Panache workbook by Chenelière Education. Much of the rest focuses on Quebec history.
Dorner said she thought the excerpt seemed disconnected from the province's history — especially when she learned about Quebec's own history of slavery.
"Kids are going to come out of there thinking, that's something that happened elsewhere," Dorner told CBC Montreal's Daybreak. "That's othering the history when in fact we have our own local [history]."
She added that she believes change needs to happen at the ministry level in order to make sure children learn an inclusive, non-distorted history.
A complicated issue
Thousands of black people were kept as property in New France and British Canada until 1833. After that, they were subject to segregation and violence, according to Rachel Zellars, a McGill lecturer and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Vermont in History.
"The text about Henri Brown is really problematic because it starts off presenting the idea of the benevolent master and you mention that it changes a bit, but it's just a deeply destructive trope about slavery," she said.
"Slavery was terrorizing and really some of the most brutal inflictions that appear in the historical record befell upon children's bodies."
For a nine-year-old in fourth grade, this piece of history will forever be misrepresented in his or her mind, she said.
"This says a lot to me about the shameful quality of our history curriculum in Quebec and diminishes a basic standard of truth that's integral to teaching."
For Zellars, part of the challenge is the complexity of Canada's history of slavery, and the small number of historians working on slavery in Canada.
"The decision to obscure what actually happened is part of the colonial project — and our education system supports that by keeping that history erased," she said.
Zellars said it's time for the French and British, the colonizing forces in Canada, to accept their equal contributions to the destruction of black and Indigenous life in this province historically.
"A truthful narration of history of slavery doesn't undo the other kinds of suffering that happened here."
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Daybreak reached out to the Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys about the workbooks, and was told that Henry Brown's story is only a portion of the book.
Spokesperson Gina Guillemette said the book includes other pages with questions that encourage students to reflect on the content, but did not respond to whether the history of slavery in Quebec or Canada was touched on in the textbook.
Quebec's Ministry of Education did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.