Did you know that it was a black man named Oliver Bowen who designed and implemented Calgary’s C-train? Or that the first-ever female publisher in Canada was a Black woman called Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and the inventor of a device that lubricated a train’s moving parts while the train was in motion was a Black Canadian called Elijah Mccoy?
These are just three of many historical events that are not taught in Canadian classrooms, including Alberta. But, two local organizations are raising awareness and taking the initiative to foster inclusion in Alberta’s education curriculum to properly reflect the diversity of its students.
The impact of historical absence
As a Black woman raised in Calgary, Cinde Adgebesan — co-founder of the AB ANTI-RACISM EDU committee, alongside Nicole Dood and Pam Tzeng — noticed that when she was growing up she did not learn much about her own history and felt like an outsider. The committee was created in June 2020, during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, when they realized how important this issue was to many people.
“I didn’t realize that people that look like me have had a long history, also, in this country and have contributed and built this country just as much as white people and just as much as Indigenous people,” she says. “I think that all of our contributions deserve to be recognized.”
Adgebesan isn’t the only one who notices a gap in the system. Courtney Walcott, a new city councillor and former teacher at Western Canada High School, explained in an interview this spring that he finds the curriculum challenging for anyone that is not fully Canadian. He says that even being “one piece of punctuation” away from being Canadian will make a difference in the learning process and the feeling of belonging.
“The identity of Canada is intrinsically connected with the identity of Europeans. So the way that we teach it in high school, in particular, it’s from a Eurocentric perspective, which is always challenging,” he says.
Walcott has not only personally felt the consequence of this lack of representation, but he is now noticing the same result happening to the minority students he teaches.
“I look at other kids right now and I see the same thing quite often, […] they can see the stories told about them and they realize they can be more than that. So many students have no idea about their own potential,” he says. “I think students of colour, […] they don’t even realize how much potential they have because they just don’t see the stories about them ever.”
According to Walcott, there’s a sense of ownership over the stories that students hear and learn, meaning the more they see “themselves” or people that look like them in the books or lectures, the more students start to think it’s their own country. On the other hand, other students that aren’t being represented don’t have or feel that same type of ownership when it comes to Canadian history.
Inequality, personal bias, and systematic racism
George Jerry Sefa Dei, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, explains in his article how “Afrocentric” knowledge is not only helpful to the educational and social growth of students, but it is also very significant to the growth of non-Black students.
This issue is not just about Black students connecting to the course content, but it is also about enhancing respect from their non-Black peers.
“The lack of representation in our curriculum really upholds white supremacy,” says Iman Bukhari, founder and CEO of the Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation, a local non-profit organization that has the goal to improve race relations within our country.
“Kids learn somehow. Right? They’ll learn through media or they’ll learn through friends or how society perceives communities. And that leads to hate oftentimes because they aren’t the normalized people,” she says.
What she means by white supremacy is the normalization of white people as being a more superior race and culture compared to others around them. This superiority prompts a lot of social issues that we all see happening on TV and on social media.
We all remember last year’s events on the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. The video was shown day after day and people around the world protested against police brutality, systemic racism, stereotypes and hate crimes. But we can’t solve these problems here without first addressing the lack of education we have in our classrooms.
Ending the cycle
After recognizing that this issue was still being faced by Black and minority students and that this absence was causing more and more damage in students’ educational success and social life, both organizations decided to take initiative and address this issue by their own means.
The AB ANTI-RACISM EDU decided to focus more on Black Canadian history, although their ultimate goal is to see all racialized stories included in the province’s curriculum. They started their advocacy campaign by creating letters that Albertans can use to write to officials about their concerns.
“Citizens of Alberta can actually send the letter to the minister of education and their local MLA to create awareness around the need for inclusion of anti-racism coursework, as well as Black Canadian history into the curriculum,” says Dood.
The power of social media
The group posts regularly on their Instagram page, where they not only create awareness on the subject but also educate people. They do so by sharing untold racialized stories of both Canada and Alberta, as well as past and current stories about events and or personalities.
“Our role is in and around awareness […] what we’re really attempting to do is forge awareness and really help people to understand that the problem might be bigger than they realized. There are many other steps, but that’s through all that we’ve taken up as three citizens,” says Dodd.
In addition to their Instagram content, they also connect with several politicians such as Sarah Hoffman, the NDP education critic, who has been alongside them in their process.
Besides getting involved on social media and connecting with politicians, the AB ANTI-RACISM EDU committee has been taking action through their Google Slide Presentations Catalogue, which is an educator resource catalog. The slides contain a series of different historical contexts and stories that happened in Canada that teachers can use as resources to educate their students.
After only being online for less than a year, the committee was able to gain over 1,900 followers on their Instagram advocacy page. Many of their posts are left with several comments of people expressing their lack of knowledge on specific topics. Posts such as the one about Oliver Bowen last December.
“Today years old, can’t thank y’all enough for bridging these important moments of Black history in Alberta to light!” was just one of the many comments left on their page by one of their followers.
“So many people have not heard of the incidents, events, and historical figures that we profile. People feel that we are creating a voice for stories that were long that had been seemingly forgotten or had been like very little known,” Dodd says. “So in that process, people start to understand that Canada doesn’t have the super-inclusive, very kind history that people assume.”
Educating teachers and school staff before students
For the Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation, the battle against systemic racism and the educational gap started in 2009. The team now consists of over 70 volunteers across Canada, with their main headquarters located in Calgary. The foundation has impacted the educational system in several ways, with schools and teachers using their resources and services on a regular basis.
The group aims to diminish racism by applying cultural understanding through education, advocacy, services, projects, and events.
The foundation created a report on how educators perceived multiculturalism and racism in Grades K–12. This report was made after they conducted a research project from 2017 to 2018, asking eight questions to 150 teachers. The results showed that half of the participants mentioned that some of their students do engage in racism, demonstrating how important it was to change the curriculum and the way students were being taught in schools.
One of the biggest things they focused on over the years was to conduct several racism sessions within schools, conducting one-on-one sessions or workshops. One recent workshop they did was with the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), where they educated teachers on how to talk about racism to their students.
“We’ve done lots of ‘we go to schools and we’ve done presentations’, obviously it’s online right now. But in terms of things like education, actually doing training for students, we have lots of programs as well,” says Bukhari.
They are currently working on a K–12 online resource hub for both teachers, parents, and students that are hoping to launch in the upcoming fall season. The hub also has different resources that are linked to the curriculum and gives suggestions to teachers on how to use these resources such as books, videos, and activities about racism. With that, Bukari and her team hope to create some sort of systematic advantage for teachers.
As a teacher, Walcott explains how important this hub could be for many of them.
“Those challenges are so hard for teachers who are going into the internet blind, right? Without any idea of where to look at, what stories to tell and how to actually include that,” he says. “But with this resource hub, it actually provides that service to teachers so that we can go onto the hub, find the appropriate subject matter, linked to curriculum outcomes.”
Over the course of last summer, Walcott created a petition after noticing the many holes in the educational system. With the help of Bukhari, he was able to transform his petition into an anti-racism task force for the Calgary Board of Education.
“The end result was that the CBE did end up creating an anti-racism task. I was a member of that board. It’s the CBE CARES committee. We provided a lot of advice and we’re still waiting to find out what the final results will be,” explains Walcott
Is the new curriculum good enough?
The Alberta government recently released a new curriculum for K-6, which gained a lot of criticism concerning the accountability of Black history that was added to this new curriculum. According to the ATA survey that was conducted between March 29 and April 7, 2021, over 90 per cent of school teachers say the curriculum is not appropriate for students and they are not comfortable with it.
Both of these organizations are doing what they can to end this issue in our education system, knowing that this will be a long-term process.
“When you realize that this is something that has been ongoing and ongoing effort by various people, we start to see that this isn’t something that’s going to resolve in the next two years,” says Dodd.