Black parents call on province to 'decolonize' curriculum in effort to fight racism in schools

For anti-Black racism in schools across Ontario to stop, the first step needs to be an overhaul of the curriculum to make it more inclusive, a Black parents group says

School system doesn't support Black children or 'recognize their humanity,' mother says

Kearie Daniel of Parents of Black Children says a decolonized curriculum means non-white students are able to see themselves and their history. 'It's important for all students to learn about the experience of each other,' she says. 'We want to make sure that our curriculum reflects that, and currently, it doesn't.' (CBC)

When Kearie Daniel flipped through the pages of a booklet her daughter worked on throughout the school year, the mother of two said it broke her heart.

"What I saw was at the beginning of the year when she said she drew herself, she drew herself as Black, as she was.  By the end of the year, she was drawing herself as white, or colourless even, with yellow hair and blue eyes," Daniel told CBC News. 

Daniel, who lives in York Region, nearly 60 kilometres north of Toronto, believes her now seven-year-old daughter's desire at such a young age to be "like everyone else" is due to not seeing herself reflected in the school or the curriculum.

But she says the recent push by Black Lives Matter to get people around the world to recognize of the importance of Black experience has led to an opportunity to change that.

She's one of the founding members of Parents of Black Children, an advocacy group that began as a way to fight racism at the public and Catholic school boards in York Region, but has now expanded province-wide. The group is calling on the provincial government to "decolonize" the curriculum — in other words rebuild it to represent Canada's diverse population.

Because Ontario's education system was designed in a period when the country was colonized, the group says, the views, lessons, and history are all from a Eurocentric perspective.

"It was not designed for Black or Indigenous or otherwise racialized people," Daniel said.

"It was designed to benefit some people and take power and disenfranchise other people. So that's the system that we're sending our kids in to every day," she added. "We're sending them into a system that didn't recognize their humanity."

As well as decolonizing the current curriculum, the group is also calling on the province to:

  • Reform the Education Act.
  • Remove police resource officers from all schools.
  • Bring in 'system navigators,' people from outside the system to help families navigate and advocate for their kids in the education system. 
  • Hold people in the system accountable for anti-Black racism experienced by students. 

Curriculum should be inclusive, diverse, professor says

Charmain Brown, the course director and practicum facilitator at York University's faculty of education, agrees with Daniel's group and would like to see Black history built right into courses.

"I think if we're going to truly be honouring all learners and all experiences and thinking of Canada, all the contributors to Canada, the Indigenous, the Black, the Japanese, the Chinese, all the communities that we have that make Canada who it is, we have to honour all those voices," said Brown, who is also an adjunct professor of education at Tyndale University, a Christian post-secondary institution in Toronto.

Charmain Brown says all teacher candidates in York's faculty of education are required to take a course on issues of race, colonization, oppression, and anti-racist education to ensure they understand that this work is part of what they are supposed to be doing daily. (CBC)

Brown is one of the co-authors of 365 Black Canadian Curriculum, a resource for teachers initiated by the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario that honours Black Canadian contributions to the country's history and is available on the union's website in French and English.

But she points out that even though it is available to all teachers across the province, it really comes down to choice and whether teachers decide to incorporate it into their lesson plans or not.

Black history 'not recognized'

Natasha Henry, the president of the Ontario Black History Society, says if teachers are left to decide when and how to teach Black History, it can lead to what she sees as "the potential erasure of Black history."

"People of African descent have been in Canada ... for over 400 years, and this is not recognized throughout the curriculum," Henry said.

As a historian who also helped author 365 Black Canadian Curriculum, Henry says it's important to weave Black History into all subjects throughout the entire year for Black students' development as individuals.

She says it's equally important for non-Black students to learn about Black experiences to get a fuller appreciation of Canadian history. 

Decolonizing in the classroom

At schools across Ontario, the first few days of September were set aside for teacher development. Part of the conversation, says Amesbury Middle School principal Salima Kassam, was focused on how to address anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism.

Kassam says, even though it was a tough conversation to have, it's one she is used to.

"It's looking at anti-Black racism and looking at colonialism. You know, it's heavy. It's hard, it's theoretical, but we have to knowledge-build so that we can unlearn that at Amesbury." 

The student population at Amesbury is ethnically and racially diverse, so Kassam says the teachers are constantly working hard at educating everyone about the cultural differences in their community. 

That means incorporating Black history lessons right into the curriculum, she told CBC Toronto.

"At the end of the day, as educators, what we control, where our power is, is what we're doing in our pedagogy, through our practice in our classrooms, how we interact with students in the hallways, what we do for extra-curriculars. That's where our power is."

Salima Kassam, the principal at Amesbury Middle School in Toronto, says she and her staff work hard at creating a space that is more equitable and where students and staff are not feeling oppressed. (CBC)

Meanwhile, Daniel also recognizes the first steps the Ontario government has made, including ending streaming in Grade 9 and a ban on suspensions for students in junior kindergarten to Grade 3, can reduce the harm being done to Black children.

But it's not enough, she said.

"There needs to be commitment to change from the Ontario government going beyond those little tiny steps into transformational change," she said. 

"I am hopeful. I think that there are a lot of educators who want to do the right thing, who are trying to learn, but we need the system to support them."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.