Editor’s Note: Names used in conversation have been changed for the sake of anonymity
As Black Lives Matter protests continue in the US as well as here in Canada, the questions of ways to bring more awareness to the oppression Black Canadians have faced comes up. Education is one way to do so, but school curriculum currently doesn’t include Canadian Black history — or at least, not to the extent it should be taught. Why is it that the education students in Canada are given does not include the oppression Black people?
Manisha: I was having a conversation the other day with Rick, a caucasian male in his 60s, who had questioned why I went to the Black Lives Matter protest in Vancouver in June. I simply said that it’s because I support the movement, which led to a conversation about the racism Black people face in Canada. He stated he didn’t think Black people face racism and discrimination in Canada anymore. To this, I was bewildered. I listed off all the various reasons on how racism and discrimination against Black people is still prevalent today. He seemed super unaware of this information, and when I brought up racism against other ethnic minorities like Indigenous peoples, asian people, etc. he acknowledged that he was aware of the atrocities that these groups faced in Canadian history like residential schools, the Komagata Maru incident, and the Japanese internment camps. He had stated that what those people went through was horrible . . . but why did he not acknowledge the atrocities Black people have faced?
It dawned on me that this was not out of complete ignorance on his part, but the lack of education. He hadn’t heard or learned about Canada’s racist past towards Black people so he therefore didn’t think it existed or is a problem in today’s society though he does acknowledge racism against Black people in America is a huge issue. Lack of education on this subject has led to unintentional ignorance in some and intentional ignorance in others.
Shina: Well, I think that Canada likes to uphold its reputation of not being a racist country. This goes back to the perception that Canada didn’t contribute to slavery — atleast to the extent that the States did. To uphold that and keep that reputation they prevent adding Black history to school curriculums. By upholding this reputation the country is achieving what it wants, which is for people to believe that Canada isn’t a racist country but also to prevent people from learning about Canada’s racist past.
When you consider that racism has existed for hundred and hundreds of years and that segregation was legal when my father was a child, residential schools had legally been forbidden only in the mid 90s. To say that racism no longer exists would be to suggest that racism is resolved and we’re done with that in a matter of about 25 years. If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is.
Manisha: I agree, it is extremely ridiculous. We see the impacts of Canada’s racist past still today and the years of trauma being carried from generation to generation. The whole point about learning about history is to learn from the past and to educate ourselves so the same mistakes are not repeated. Canada as a whole cannot learn from the past if we continue the pretense that we ourselves do not have a dark past entrenched in racist policies, laws and ideologies. And just because the States’ racist history against Black people is so much more atrocious then that of Canada’s does not mean Canada does not have a racist past and that Canada is pardoned.
Canadian’s need to be aware of this past so we can work towards making a better today and a better future for all Canadians — including Black Canadians. Including Black history in the curriculum would make it harder for Canadians to turn a blind eye to the injustices the Black community faces. This inclusion in our education system would help spread awareness on a subject many people may not really even think is an issue.
Shina: I remember one of my teachers mentioning that we need to learn history in the hopes that we never repeat it. I would like to add that it is also important to understand our nation’s past so that we can better appreciate the land that we reside on, and how it was built on the torturing and killings of not only the majority of indigenous peoples, but also Black people that were brought over as slaves. Having the right to learn about this history is not only beneficial for unaffected racial groups (such as white people) but also for the affected racial groups as well. Black and Indigenous people deserve to know everything their ancestors endured and the differences they made throughout history especially during the Civil Rights movement. When we are unaware of this history, we do not understand who we are.
Manisha: I’d just like to point out that for those who do not believe that institutionalized racism or systemic racism in Canada isn’t a thing then they need to look back at Canadian history and recognize that there were members of parliament who were slave owners. These people who are supposed to govern people and encourage democracy are more concerned about making money fast through cheap labour by enslaving people. It’s inhumane and disgusting and it still happens today.
The whole power dynamic between white people being in high status positions and ethnic minorities still not being a significant percentage in powerful positions is evidence towards the effects of systemic and institutionalized racism. There is still this belief that coloured folks are not smart enough, not good enough and that is just not true. I think some people don’t even realize how deeply rooted these racist and discriminatory beliefs are in our society.
Shina: For instance, from childhood up until age 15, I absolutely hated my 4b type hair (I am a Black woman). I genuinely believed for the longest time that straight hair was synonymous with beauty and anything “kinky” was undesirable and unkempt. Now that I am an adult and have done more research, I finally learned about the reasons why I hated myself and my race.
When several Africans were being stripped from their homes and taken aboard on slave ships, their abusers did not understand their hairstyles because it was far too unique and therefore were forced to shave their heads. Since the slave era, Black people were shamed for their natural hair and any other physical features that did not resemble Eurocentric features. In fact, in the 1700s, the Tignon Laws banned Black women from displaying their hair in public because the beautiful hairstyles were deemed to be socially threatening and distracting since it attracted many White men to them. Had I been taught this painful past in my classrooms, my self-perception would have been very different and I probably would not have felt as insecure as I did at the time.
Manisha: Look around us, there are so many different cultures and ethnicities present here in Vancouver and in general all over Canada. Of course it is going to look like we’re multicultural and we are — but not in all aspects. The education we are taught in Canada does not excel when it comes to teaching about oppression, Black history, and even on indigenous peoples. I have to say I had not been taught an ounce of Black history throughout high school at all. Most of what I have learned about Canada’s history in terms of Black history is from other sources like the Canadian encyclopedia. They have tons and tons of information. Information that should be taught in schools, to help anti-racism efforts and to bring awareness to people who do not face discrimination and racism.
Canada needs to step up and take ownership for its past.