While walking high schoolers through the Vancouver neighborhood where the historic Black community of Hogan’s Alley was located, Ruby Smith Díaz sometimes asks the teens to snap a photo of something that resonates with them.
Smith Diaz, an arts-based facilitator, educator, and artist, leads those tours as part of her workshop series exploring the Black history and the Black Canadian experience with secondary students and fellow teachers.
Once, a student shared a photo of a mosque after their tour had stopped at Fountain Chapel, one of the few landmarks still remaining after Hogan’s Alley was largely demolished in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
She described the mosque as a “safe place” that helped her connect with “why a church might be important for someone of African ancestry that lived in Vancouver at that time,” explained Smith Díaz.
Each February, more Canadian schools are devoting time to Black history and the Black Canadian experience, but what happens for the rest of the year? Many educators, historians, students and community members — like Smith Díaz —are striving to make Black history part of everyday learning.
Whether by taking guided walks through a historic district or silk-screening layered maps of Vancouver’s shifting landscape over time, common threads are discovered when learning Black history, she said. Beyond simply accepting that history exists, students ask: “‘How am I connected to the person that I am seeing here in this textbook, in this photograph?'”
The empathy created in that moment is important for students to carry with them as they grow up, Smith Díaz said.
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Teaching the Vancouver School Board’s new course History of African Descent in B.C., Nikitha Fester is inspired by her students’ enthusiasm and feels joy exploring “people who look like me, who have had shared experiences with me.”
The class — open to senior high schoolers across the district and already approved to return next year — has drawn a diverse mix, she said. Among them are Black students eager to learn more about their history, students specifically interested in West Coast history, and some inspired by Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements.
“I’m seeing the eagerness and the interest that they have,” said Fester, who teaches at Vancouver Technical Secondary. “They’re hungry for this information.”
Exploring resilience — not simply focusing on historical traumas for Black Canadians — is key to her approach. In turn, she sees students make critical connections between past and present.
“They’re able to look at these situations, critique the systems that are in place and the laws that have been made, the decisions and the power dynamics, but also recognize that folks are overcoming [obstacles] every day.”
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Educators must learn, too
Learning about and finding connections to Black Canadian history is also important for educators themselves, said Toronto educator and writer Greg Birkett.
Across each province and territory, the school curriculum usually outlines areas of knowledge and skills students are expected to learn in each grade or course. Suggested topics to cover or sample activities are sometimes included. But the exact path taken inside the classroom — which books are read, how lessons are given, what activities undertaken — depends on the teacher.
Even though Black Canadians may be referenced in the curriculum — a settlers section of Alberta’s elementary social studies curriculum mentions Black rancher John Ware, Birkett noted — if the teachers themselves have a gap in their knowledge, that’s a missed opportunity.
“How are you going to teach what you don’t know?”
Having not seen it in his own schooling until he sought it out in post-secondary, Birkett intentionally weaves Black Canadian history into his teaching.
In one instance, he chose Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes for a novel study while teaching a senior-level English Lit class, rather than the well-trodden The Catcher in the Rye. That first year, a few students questioned Birkett’s book choice. The following year, a white colleague joined Birkett in swapping the novel study title. They heard no student griping at all.
If Black history is a common thread from kindergarten through Grade 12, he said, “students understand that it’s just a part of the Canadian narrative. It’s just a part of our fabric and who we are.”
He’s currently teaming up with his sister, fellow Toronto teacher Coleen Birkett, and educational publisher Nelson to deliver a nine-part professional development series for teachers throughout Canada. The online webinars explore key topics from the 1600s to the present day and include resources and suggested activities.
Interconnected histories ‘come alive,’ says historian
The mindset that “Black history is Canadian history” has long guided Dalhousie University professor Afua Cooper, from the days her pursuit of master’s and doctorates in Canadian history were met with the remark “Canadian history is so boring!” she recalled, with laughter.
History becomes exciting, Cooper continued, “when you can see how all these histories are woven together. And within these histories, different themes come alive: civil rights, belonging, citizenship, settlement patterns, the whole issue of segregation.”
As principal investigator for A Black People’s History of Canada, a project announced in 2021 by federal officials, the Halifax-based historian is linking up with fellow scholars, universities, cultural groups and others to create both a Black history curriculum and a trove of multimedia resources. It’s destined for all Canadian educators and students.
Black Canadians and the military is just one of their topics. “When you start to dig deep, you see ‘Oh my goodness! Here are all these Black men in the 1837 rebellion,'” Cooper said.
“There were Black militias, Black soldiers, and Black volunteers in that rebellion all throughout, but you could pick up an Ontario history book and read about 1837 and it’s only white people you’re reading about.”
Call for compulsory learning
Cooper’s team is also reaching out to provincial and territorial ministries of education, school boards, and teacher colleges about the need for compulsory learning about the Black experience. That Black history has been erased or sidelined is “scandalous,” Cooper said.
“It’s full time that this history is brought to the fore.”
That call for a Black history mandate regularly rings out across regions. Proponents in British Columbia saw movement last month when provincial Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside met with educators, stakeholders, and Black community members. The West Coast group is calling for the creation of educator resources and updates to the provincial curriculum.
“If the ministry agrees to work with our group, we could be seeing learning resources at the earliest in 2023,” said Markiel Simpson, a Vancouver anti-racism advocate who attended.
“Provincial curricular updates, those will take more time.”
Grade 12 student Emma-Jo Adjekwei first researched the historic Nova Scotian community of Africville for an extra-curricular initiative at school, and it’s given her an appetite to learn more.
She and other Peel District School Board students researched key people, places and events in Black Canadian history to create plaques, which they then posted around Brampton, Ont., and neighbouring Toronto.
The project “was always on my mind in some way, shape or form,” said the 17-year-old, who was inspired to continue her own learning about other historic Black communities as well as the history of enslavement in Canada.
It’s “a big responsibility” for all teachers and administrators to actively learn and enthusiastically teach Black history, she said, beyond “a quick topic you do for the month of February.”
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.