(Evan Mitsui/CBC, Adams Photography, Craig Chivers/CBC - image credit)
Since the renewed Black Lives Matter protests that swept across North America last year, there's been a new fervour and energy in those working to combat anti-Black racism in Canadian schools.
Activists have staged protests to raise awareness of and decry the multi-layered obstacles and barriers Black children and teens face in school — everything from lessons that ignore Black history, perspectives and contributions to Black students disproportionately being disciplined to the ongoing practice of academic streaming from as early as kindergarten.
Against that backdrop, as well as a pandemic that has disproportionately affected predominantly Black and brown communities, some Black parents and educators are working within the system to support Black students in improving their academic achievements and to dispel racism in education.
A mother of three with her eldest now in university, Charline Grant has learned a lot about the education system over the years. Now, she's also helping other families traverse kindergarten to Grade 12 schooling through her role as York Region system navigator for Parents of Black Children, an advocacy and support group north of Toronto.
Her work entails mediating on issues like academic streaming, overpolicing, the lack of progressive discipline, withholding of supports and dismissal of parental concerns. The group also provides resources to improve cultural and ethnic representation as well as help for students being bullied.
Over the years, the Vaughan, Ont.-based Grant learned how to exert her rights as a parent to ask questions and advocate for her children.
"Part of it blows my mind to this day and I try to [share this with] parents all the time," she said. "Here are the questions you ask when you go in for the progress report. Here are questions you could look at [asking in regards to] your kids' report cards. Report cards can be changed. Report cards are not etched in stone. When an educator is saying X, Y and Z, you can ask them 'What supports do you have?' "
For many Black families, existing wariness about whether they'll receive equitable treatment at school has been intensified by COVID-19, said Grant.
One trend she's seen, for instance, is Black students being more harshly disciplined for wearing masks incorrectly. Other calls from parents have tapped into her experience on advocating for the help any student facing struggles, especially during a pandemic, deserves.
A family contacted Grant early this school year after being told their daughter was moving into a lower-level math course. During a call with the parents and an administrator, Grant inquired about the efforts made to bring the student up-to-speed, given rotating teacher strikes and in-person closures that disrupted the previous year, and why her parents were not consulted before administrators made the unilateral decision.
"This happened on the Friday. By the Monday, the entire decision was reversed. You should have seen the amount of support that was rolling out for this family," she said.
Despite successes, "we have such a long way to go," and ridding the school system of anti-Black racism will ultimately benefit all students and can't wait until after the coronavirus pandemic ends, Grant said.
"We're choosing to deal with one pandemic over another.... Anti-Black racism is a crisis and that requires a crisis approach. Everyone needs to be on board. Every institution needs to tackle it," she said. "Every structure ... needs to take a hard look at policies and make sure those policies are anti-racist."
Reflecting Black students in what they learn
Principal Karen Hudson agrees that the pandemic, as well as the Black Lives Matters movement, have heightened Black Canadians' struggle against racism and toward justice, equity and representation in the culture as well as school curriculum.
"Racism is alive. We cannot pretend that it doesn't exist within our Canadian society," said Hudson, chief administrator of Auburn Drive High School in Dartmouth.
"We have to decide: 'What are we going to do? How are we going to do things better? Are we going to address it or pretend? Are we going to change our practices and be more informed and knowledgeable?'"
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In 2019, Hudson was named one of Canada's outstanding principals by The Learning Partnership, a group that promotes innovative educational initiatives, for co-developing and introducing an Africentric program at Auburn Drive. This June will see the graduation of the first cohort of Black students who have been taking courses — such as math, English, Canadian studies and Canadian history — together since Grade 9.
When Hudson joined the school in 2014, she quickly realized that Black students were predominantly enrolled in lower-level courses and largely missing from higher-level ones, especially math.
"We wanted to change the trajectory of what was going on with our students" she said.
Hudson developed a program that specifically incorporates and applies the lived, real experiences of people of African heritage into high-level high school courses, so Black students could see themselves reflected and, hopefully, feel motivated and engaged to learn.
A geometry lesson, for instance, might reference real-life Nova Scotia communities or mix in some history about the building of the ancient pyramids. There's a concerted effort to go deeper in infusing classes with African Nova Scotian history, she said. Beyond covering Africville, the African-Nova Scotian community expropriated and demolished by the city of Halifax in the 1960s, students also learn about figures like Rose Fortune, thought to be the Canada's first female police officer or civil rights activist Carrie Best, who co-founded one of Nova Scotia's first Black-owned newspapers.
"If you don't see yourself in the curriculum, if you don't see that you're worthy or your value, when you [learn] about something new, you may start to stray away from it as opposed to coming to it," Hudson said.
"That historical connection to what they do, their lived experiences, the social realities, is important. And once students feel that you are interested in who they are as individuals and you're interested in what they do, then they begin to see themselves as being valuable citizens."
According to Hudson, the growth and development she's witnessed in the program's graduating class of 2021 is "mind-boggling" — as well as inspiring for the subsequent cohorts coming up right behind.
"[The students] are creating their own legacy. They're creating footsteps and pathways for others to join and walk with them."
Making space for anti-racist discussion
Last summer, four Black educators in Toronto were spurred to action by the protests that emerged after the murder of George Floyd. They heard Black students pour out their pain and sadness, while Black parents shared worries about their children's physical and emotional well-being. That atmosphere compelled the teachers to build a new interdisciplinary course that gives students the space and time to explore difficult conversations about race.
"We were uniquely positioned to understand where staff and administration across the board generally are at on the issue of race and racism and anti-Black racism. And we understand that while there are a lot of really strong efforts toward equity and anti-oppression, anti-racism, anti-Black racism, there's a lot of work to do," said D. Tyler Robinson, project lead for the new Toronto District School Board Grade 12 course Deconstructing anti-Black Racism in the Canadian and North American Context.
"Racism and anti-Black racism, while discussed, are discussed in a shallow way and that there's a need for depth," he continued.
"[As a society,] we've been tiptoeing into these conversations since the summer and we're not good at it because we don't take the necessary time and depth to really explore this topic. And if we can't have kids explore it in school, in a safe space where we can marshal the conversation and bring kids together, then where are we going to have these conversations?"
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Though Robinson initially imagined simply sharing the course with any school that wanted it, feedback from the first class of students who just completed the pilot has helped convince him it would be a valuable core offering for all Ontario high schools — something he'd love to see mandated by the Education Ministry as part of a wider concert of initiatives.
"Racism is systemic, so the response needs to be systemic.... We need to have a broad-based approach, a K-through-12 approach, that systematically looks to deconstruct this problem," he said.
"If in 20 years from now all students across this province have that type of depth of education in this space, I think our society will be in a better place."
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.