Opinion

If we're going to tackle systemic racism, we need to rethink how we teach history

Grade 10 history class barely touched on BIPOC issues and perspectives, writes Toronto high school student Nasima Fancy.

Grade 10 history class barely touched on BIPOC issues and perspectives, writes high school student

Demonstrators march in Toronto on June 6 in a peaceful protest against anti-Black racism. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Nasima Fancy, a high school student in Toronto. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I felt dissatisfied as I neared the end of my Grade 10 history course earlier this year. As somebody who enjoys learning about Canadian history on my own, what my textbook and curriculum outlined wasn't nearly good enough. And given the protests across the country supporting the Black Lives Matter movement that have been shining a light on systemic racism in Canada, this felt even more problematic.

There are simply too many important events and aspects of historical Canadian life that weren't mentioned or emphasized nearly enough in high school history class.

Ontario's Grade 10 curriculum takes students from the start of the First World War to present day. However, it's up to individual teachers and textbook writers to decide what examples from this time period they choose to include in their lessons. Restraints on time, textbook page counts, and general bias make it quite easy to avoid historical events that are inclusive of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) experiences.

These events include appalling examples of cultural and social segregation in Canada, as well as the Sixties Scoop and Africville. If we don't tackle these topics in school, then we are holding our society back from learning not just about history but also from history, and that's how racism perpetuates.

Nasima Fancy with some of her study notes from high school history class, which made few mentions BIPOC-related issues or perspectives. (Nasima Fancy)

We need to rethink how we teach history. Here are three suggestions.

1. Teaching students historical events beyond their political significance

Too often, historical education is limited to the role of pioneers, settlers, and the governments they eventually formed. Students must be taught about historical events from perspectives that go beyond their political significance.

Everyday individuals were affected by these events, and often still are. Students need to hear their first-hand accounts and stories.

For example, when it comes to teaching the tragedy of Air India flight 182, there is more to it than the Mulroney government's response, or lack thereof. We need to explore the experiences of those who lost loved ones, whose pain was for far too long overlooked. The lessons we take from this tragedy must go beyond looking at the role of terrorism, and take into account its effect on everyday Canadians turned victims.

A monument in Vancouver honours those who died in the Air India bombing. Flight 182 exploded in the sky off the Irish coast on June 23, 1985, killing all 329 people aboard, 278 of them Canadians. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

2. Rethinking how much of our history we shield students from

Students cannot be sheltered from the harsh realities that come with the history of our country.

Too often, subjects like slavery and segregation are swept under the rug. With other atrocities, such as residential schools, brutalities by the RCMP, the Sixties Scoop, and land settlement disputes, we barely scrape the surface.

It's undeniable these are difficult topics to discuss. However, students continue to see the effects of systemic racism daily — perhaps more than the general public may think. It's not like we don't hear individuals calling each other terrorists or derogatory terms like the N-word as we walk down the hallways of our schools. It also isn't uncommon for us to see generational poverty and police brutality daily in our news cycles and social media feeds.

If we appropriately and considerately instill the facts and realities of our history and discuss how these racist actions continue to affect us to this day, students like myself will be better prepared to challenge systemic racism — and maybe one day eliminate it for the next generation.

The police killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed have brought renewed attention to systemic racism. In Canada, some have been quick to deny its existence. But these experts say racism has been normalized within Canadian institutions. 9:56

3. Emphasize analysis and critical thinking

Our schooling puts too much emphasis on learning names, dates, and key events, instead of encouraging students to fully contemplate the consequences of those historical events. Students must be taught to emphasize evidence, analysis, and critical thinking. There should also be a clear mandate for teachers and textbook writers to ensure that BIPOC perspectives are taught in full and no longer ignored.

It may seem difficult to fit all of this into one course. But it could be done by moving some of the curriculum, such as the First World War, into earlier grades and beginning in-depth historical education earlier than Grade 7. That would leave more high school years to learn different perspectives, expose students to more of our history's harsh realities, and offer opportunities to discuss and reflect on their significance.

Education is a unique and extremely powerful medium that shapes young minds, and in turn the future of our society. If we don't want to repeat history and perpetuate systemic racism, we need to teach history differently and fully acknowledge the unpleasant truths of our past.


About the Author

Nasima Fancy is a high school student in Toronto.

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