British Columbia

Publisher of school exercise book apologizes for racially charged language

The publisher of a high school exercise book that used the word "squaw" to connect Indigenous women, and "darkie" to African Americans has removed the book for review and has apologized for any “pain it may have caused” via Twitter.

‘It was a punch in the gut’ says mother of grade 9 student

The cover from the novel Susanna Moodie: Roughing It in the Bush. A workbook for students reading the novel has caused controversy at a B.C. school. (Second Story Press)

The publisher of a high school exercise book that used the word "squaw" for Indigenous women, and "darkie" for African Americans has removed the book for review — and has apologized for any "pain it may have caused." 

In statement released Monday, Second Story Press said it has pulled all content relating to Indigenous history, peoples and communities for review and evaluation.

"We understand the importance of including Indigenous expertise and voices to better reflect Indigenous experiences, wrote Magie Wolfe, the publisher of Second Story Press. "We are committed to making that an integral part of our editorial processes going forward."

Shawna Davis, the Indigenous mother of a 14 year-old Grade 9 student who attends school in Vancouver, first tweeted out a photo of the exercise on Sept. 15.

"When I saw it, my jaw dropped," said Davis. "It was a punch in the gut that my daughter had to go through this."

The activity is inside a workbook for a graphic novel called Susanna Moodie: Roughing It in the Bush, written by the late author Carol Shields and Patrick Crowe. It was used as part of a humanities course and is also an ESL resource.

The B.C. Teacher's Federation says it has been pushing the current and previous governments to develop an action plan that is more sensitive to the realities of current classroom demographics.

"It really points to the urgent need that the province of British Columbia works with school boards to ensure teachers do have materials that are culturally appropriate and that are sensitive," said federation president Glen Hansman. 

Rubin Friedman, of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, said that while removing the offending material is the quickest solution — it may not the best idea in the long run.

"I think it isn't adequate. You have to have a much better understanding of the history of the treatment of Indigenous people in the country in order to understand why that wording is so innapropriate," he said.

Friedman said it is unknown how prevalent racist material is in Canadian classrooms. He said teachers need more support and more education on how to deal with racist material as it arises.

"Students have to have the chance to learn what's wrong with that," he said. "Sometimes its good to know the kind of racism that existed, and the unconscious disregard for how other people felt."

Moodie's original book, published in 1852, details the experiences of a British settler living in what is called the "the wilderness" near Peterborough, Ont. In the book, the word "squaw" is used 39 times.

The workbook addresses the racially charged language and states "students should be made aware that the original text … reflected the racial, ethnic, and social prejudices of that time."

A section labelled "Susanna Moodie's 'Politically Incorrect' Language," lists true or false questions, such as, "She wrote using disrespectful language not because she was mean, but because these were the words that everyone used at that time."

The Vancouver School Board wrote in a brief emailed statement Monday that it is investigating.

"VSB is looking into the context in which these materials were used in the classroom," wrote a spokesperson.

Davis's daughter, Mayah Wolff, said she thinks teachers need to take the material they are teaching seriously.

"I think that teachers that are not Aboriginal should be taught about what Native people went through instead of just brushing up on it lightly, because some teachers might give a handout and some of their students might be disgusted by it," Mayah said.

With files from Angela Sterritt and Chad Pawson