Oluwadamilola Ojo can only remember spending a handful of classroom hours learning about Canada’s Black history — everything else she knows has been self-taught.

Oluwadamilola Ojo can only remember spending a handful of classroom hours learning about Canada’s Black history — everything else she knows has been self-taught.

"It’s a little bit embarrassing on the Manitoba government, because Winnipeg in particular is full of immigrants… and we don’t even know the history of Black Canadians," said Ojo, 17, the leader of Black History Month events at St. Mary’s Academy.

Black history curriculum in Manitoba

The first provincial conference on anti-racism education was held in the mid-1980s, diversity education consultant Tony Tavares said. The province held two anti-racism summer institutes in the early 1990s in collaboration with the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba and a number of community groups.

The first provincial conference on anti-racism education was held in the mid-1980s, diversity education consultant Tony Tavares said. The province held two anti-racism summer institutes in the early 1990s in collaboration with the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba and a number of community groups.

Around 15 years ago, the province began developing the Diversity Education resource, including a web resource on Black History Month, with the input of the then-Black History Month Celebration Committee. That resource was updated in late 2020 after several community groups acknowledged the need for more fulsome resources, Tavares said. The expansion included new anti-racism materials.

Manitoba’s social studies curriculum was last reviewed in the late 1990s, and was published primarily in the early 2000s. It was informed by a diversity advisory committee that included two Black educators. It has not been updated since.

There are no metrics to measure how much Black history education is integrated into the curriculum, Tavares said, adding he is not aware of any such mechanisms in any Canadian jurisdictions.

Though it is unclear when further updates will be made to the mandatory curriculum documents, Tavares said the government is committed to improving diversity in its curriculum at each renewal.

École Templeton principal Michelle Jean-Paul said Black educators in the province have been advocating for a more inclusive curriculum since the 1980s, and have formed several groups — including the current Educators of Colour Network — to continue to support Black, Indigenous and other diverse educators.

Ojo remembers reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (which she called "one of the worst books to represent Black people"), a "very brief" class about the Black United Empire Loyalists who settled in Nova Scotia after the American Revolution, and some discussion of current events throughout the summer, when the death of George Floyd at the hands of police propelled the Black Lives Matter movement into the headlines.

To compensate for a dearth of mandatory Black history curricula in classes, students have taken matters into their own hands: participating in Black students’ unions and Black History Month events, or advocating to teachers for inclusion in the classroom.

Across the city at West Kildonan Collegiate, aspiring electrician and Grade 11 student Tofunmi Eludipo said the school’s Black Students’ Union is the only place she’s learned substantial Black history.

In the classroom, Eludipo — who moved to Canada from Nigeria in 2018 — remembers discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, slavery and Viola Desmond (after the Nova Scotia civil-rights activist was selected as the face of Canada’s $10 bill), but that’s all.

"Coming from Nigeria and trying to learn about Canada in general, it kind of feels lonely not knowing the history about Canadian Black people; just like we have learned about Canadian history, we should be able to learn about Black people’s side," Eludipo said.

"There are a lot of Black people in Winnipeg, Manitoba and elsewhere in Canada, so to learn it in school helps you to learn it more when you’re out in the community."

The province last updated its supplementary Canadian Black history and anti-racism education package — which includes a glance at Manitoba’s early Black history and current Black leaders, as well as resources for Black History Month and for teaching anti-racism — in December 2020, but teaching the material is not mandatory.

Diversity education consultant Tony Tavares, who helped design the materials, said there are places throughout the curriculum designed to include Black history, such as the United Empire Loyalists in Grade 11 social studies, but the curriculum does not specify the level of detail teachers should cover.

Michelle Jean-Paul, a principal in the Seven Oaks school division, believes this hesitance to mandate Black studies presents a disadvantage for all Manitoba students.

"These are aspects of Canadian history that should be studied by all Canadians," Jean-Paul said. "Part of why it needs to be mandatorily included in the Manitoba curriculum is to draw attention to the fact that it’s absent."

"To me, anti-racism education is rooted in addressing systemic inequalities, identifying the ways in which systemic racism exists, functions and impacts communities, and equipping people with the tools, the language and the resources to dismantle those systems of harm. Black curriculum would be one way of addressing those systemic inequities." ‐ NDP MLA Uzoma Asagwara

A comprehensive Black history curriculum in Manitoba would include both discussion of the early Black settlement of the nation and the Prairies, and a focus on integrating contemporary achievements of Black Canadians into all aspects of the school curriculum, the educator said.

"I can teach Black history and focus on the enslavement of Black people, when slavery ended in Canada and our role in the underground railroad, but that’s a pretty limited perspective of Black history," she added.

The current supplementary resources celebrate some of Manitoba’s Black leaders, particularly those in government roles, such as NDP MLA Uzoma Asagwara and Progressive Conservative MLA Audrey Gordon.

"I’m incredibly proud and humbled to now be part of the Black history curriculum in Manitoba, because I don’t think many people are aware of the numerous contributions by Black Manitobans to our province’s history," Gordon said in a statement to Free Press.

"I’m excited at the prospect of education reform, and the opportunity to have a new provincial curriculum framework that reflects the diversity, ideas and talents of all Manitobans."

As the province begins to focus on anti-racism education in schools, Asagwara said teaching and celebrating Black history becomes even more imperative.

"To me, anti-racism education is rooted in addressing systemic inequalities, identifying the ways in which systemic racism exists, functions and impacts communities, and equipping people with the tools, the language and the resources to dismantle those systems of harm," the MLA said.

"Black curriculum would be one way of addressing those systemic inequities."

Asagwara noted meaningful change will only derive from consultation with Black leaders, from the government to the classroom level.

In his role on the Seven Oaks school board, Greg McFarlane helped spearhead a one-of-a-kind initiative this year, holding a virtual anti-racism town hall with community members and providing resources to help staff learn anti-racist teaching practices.

The division also recently undertook a demographic survey of its staff to get a clearer picture of who students are learning from, an initiative McFarlane hopes to see taken up formally in other school divisions.

"This is the importance of having Black people in those sorts of positions, so we can have that voice and make those changes," he said.

Tavares noted two Black community representatives were instrumental in the last social studies curriculum updates, though the curriculum has not been renewed in the last two decades and there is no indication of when it will be renewed again.

Students like Ojo and Eludipo said future Black history in school would cross subject barriers, and would ideally teach an understanding both of the past — like the settlement and movement of Black Canadians — and of their places in the present and future.

"I believe in all things you have to reflect back on the past to understand the future or understand the present," said Ojo.

"Everywhere we go there’s history around us, so learning it is important, because we want to feel like we belong, and we want to feel that our voices are heard. We don’t want to be silenced."

julia-simone.rutgers@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jsrutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers
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Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.

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