'Isolated and broken down': Black students call for anti-racism education and Black history classes in Sask.

·5 min read

Belan Tsegaye was walking in the hallways of her Regina school when the word came out flying.

"I was called the N-word."

She was in Grade 9 at Miller Comprehensive Catholic High School.

"I was shocked and in pain. I went to the bathroom and started crying because I didn't know what to do."

It was the first time the racial slur was directed at her, but it wasn't the last.

Now in Grade 12, Tsegaye said she has been called the N-word and other racist slurs several times in school.

"From Grade 9 to Grade 12, I've struggled with racism, stereotypes and discrimination on the daily," the 16-year-old said.

She is not the only one. Tsegaye said other Black students are also subjected to racism in Saskatchewan schools.

"With other Black students in our school, we felt isolated and broken down."

The young woman lost her best friend to suicide in 2018. Before his death, 13-year-old Kaleb Schmidt was the victim of bullying and racism in his school.

A petition calling for change

During this election period, Tsegaye and other Black students who say they've been called the N-word and have been the target of microaggressions in their schools want anti-racism education and more Black history in the province's curriculum.

Tsegaye said school officials also need to act against prejudice.

"We kept our experiences to ourselves knowing that our school division wasn't going to do anything about it. I'd like to see people getting consequences for what they say," she said.

Tsegaye supported a petition calling on the Saskatchewan School Boards Association to introduce Black history and anti-racism education in the province's schools.

Germain Wilson/CBC
Germain Wilson/CBC

The petition, which has received nearly 73,000 signatures to date, was launched by Tobi Omoyefa.

Omoyefa, who is now a fourth year accounting student at the University of Regina, said he also witnessed the N-word being used by classmates and was the target of microaggressions while in high school in the city.

"In group chats, when discussions would come up where people say racial words and the N-word would come up, it was hard to stand up and say that was not right."

Omoyefa said consistently teaching Black history in schools will make a difference by "getting people to be more conscious, especially as they become adults."

In Saskatchewan, teachers can choose to use Black history to meet curricular diversity outcomes, but they are not mandated to teach it. The Ministry of Education said the provincial social studies curricula "require that students are provided education about topics including diversity, racism and power and authority."

Omoyefa and Tsegaye say that is not enough.

"I started that petition because growing up in that system from Grade 7 to Grade 12, I felt like I wasn't taught enough about Black history, especially by the school," Omoyefa said.

"I knew with the younger generation coming up, it would be the same or maybe worse. What's to come in 10 to 20 years from now?"

A long-standing battle

Historian R. Bruce Shepard said Black people have struggled to be recognized in Saskatchewan's education system for more than a century.

In the early 20th century, children of the first Black settlers were refused access to schools attended by white children. Many remained unschooled for years.

At the time, members of the Black community in the Maidstone, Sask., area near North Battleford encountered roadblocks from the Eldon district town council in their efforts to establish a new school district. They tried to get a school closer to their farms and a bitter dispute between the two parties dragged on for years. It was only resolved when the provincial department of education decided to create a Black-only school district, effectively segregating the Black children from the wider school children.

Shepard said remnants of that exclusion can be felt today as Black Saskatchewanians push for the inclusion of Black history in the provincial education curricula.

"The tragic reality is that we have not escaped the racism of our past. That's what the young people are still fighting for," Shepard said.

Shepard said adding Black history in the schools curriculum would benefit all students.

"It is the next logical step. This heritage needs to be shared and discussed."

Political ambivalence

Advocates in other parts of the country, including Ontario and British Columbia, are calling for Black history to be included in curriculums.

In B.C., Education Minister Rob Fleming endorsed a recent push for more Black history in schools.

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Education declined to comment on if the province was having similar conversations with members of the Black community, because it is an election period.

Government officials previously met with Omoyefa, but no commitment to include Black history into the curriculum has been offered.

The Saskatchewan Party, which is seeking re-election this month, said discussions are underway to determine whether the curriculum should be improved. There is no confirmation that Black history will be included should changes be brought to the curriculum.

For its part, the Saskatchewan NDP said it's important for Saskatchewan students to learn about the history, accomplishments and struggles of our province's Black community, and that those lessons should be formally incorporated in our provincial curriculum.

Belan Tsegaye said it is time to have that change.

"If you want change, you need to know what has happened in the past."

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.

CBC
CBC