‘Troubling on multiple levels’: Black history education in Ontario left up to teacher’s discretion

A growing chorus of voices are calling on the Ministry of Education to make Black history a mandatory education requirement. As Caryn Ceolin reports, teachers are currently left to use their own discretion.

By Caryn Ceolin

When students like Stephen Mensah open a textbook, rarely do they learn about someone who looks like them.

“Never did I read anything that represented my own experiences,” Mensah said. “It was very disheartening.”

Mensah, now a Ryerson University student and the Education Lead for the Toronto Youth Cabinet, is part of a growing chorus of voices calling on the Ministry of Education for greater representation of Black perspectives across the curriculum – including making Black history a mandatory education requirement from kindergarten to Grade 12.

“That would be a major step in the right direction,” said Mensah. “Racism is not something that you’re born with. It’s learned and taught behaviour, so education is going to play an important role.”

Educator and president of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) Natasha Henry has researched the issue extensively. She says teachers are left to use their own discretion to decide which topics related to Black experiences they want to cover, if any at all.

“It’s worth noting that there isn’t one specific learning expectation that all students have to learn throughout Ontario (about) anything specific to Black Canadian history,” Henry said. “The government continues to respond to say that what is done based on individual teachers’ efforts is sufficient and what we’re saying is that it’s not.”

The OBHS recently pored over a Grade 8 history textbook. Of the 255 pages, Black history was limited to just 13.

In a statement to CityNews, a spokesperson for the Minister of Education said in part, “we know there is more work to do. That work includes ensuring our curriculum better reflects the diversity and experiences of every Ontarian.”

The province, however, did not clearly answer if it is considering changing Ontario’s education curriculum, which could take years.

“It’s troubling on multiple levels,” said Matthew Morris, who is a middle school teacher with the Toronto District School Board.

Troubling, not least because of a lack of Black perspectives, but because teaching about Black history often begins with slavery, Morris said.

“It almost starts from this deficient narrative of being less than other people implicitly and that’s one of the toughest challenges,” said Morris.

Morris adds when Black children go to school, they’re taught more about African Americans than the challenges and contributions of Black Torontonians, Ontarians and Canadians.

He said that helps feed the false perception that racism doesn’t exist in Canada.

“Our history is so contingent on what happened in the U.S. that we venture sometimes on this dissociative process where students might feel that, ‘Oh, that was what happened down south, that didn’t happen here’,” said Morris.

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