Hamilton activists call for Black history to be added to school curriculum


Published June 11, 2020 at 12:23 pm

A group of Hamilton activists are looking to bring change to the curriculum at Ontario schools by including the in-depth study of Black history.

A group of Hamilton activists are looking to bring change to the curriculum at Ontario schools by including the in-depth study of Black history.

Members of Black Futures Matter (BFM), a group supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, are working to have Black history taught in Ontario schools for the entire year — not just during Black History Month (February).

“When I was in high school, they didn’t do much to teach us about Black history,” said Michael St. Jean, one of the lead organizers of the BFM movement.

“They pretty much expected kids to educate themselves and we all hated school.”

St. Jean, who attended several Catholic and public schools in Hamilton, St. Catharines and Oakville, said nowhere was he taught about people of colour he and his fellow Black students could look up to.

“We don’t expect [adding Black history to the curriculum] will stop racism but it will give us Black people more respect going forward,” he told InTheHammer.

Deanna Clarke, one of the movement’s other lead organizers, said her experience in Hamilton’s schools was similar.

“We, as Black kids, do not have a connection to our history,” she said, adding that this isn’t a new proposal and there has been a push to include Black history in the Ontario school curriculum for years.

“In high school, I was a member of the Black History Month committee with the HWDSB (Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board) that organized events in schools all over the city at the time,” Clarke said. “Back then there was a push to add this to the curriculum.”

It’s been more than ten years, Clarke said.

“They’re still not teaching Black history,” St. Jean said.

With the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last month, the desire and push for change is at an all-time high, not just among Black, racialized and Indigenous communities, but among caucasian people who are coming to terms with their role in perpetuating systemic racism.

The time to reassert the proposal to change Ontario’s curriculum couldn’t be better as we all take stock in our roles to bring about and cultivate change.

The BFM organizers see Hamilton as an ideal place for a change like this to be implemented.

“Hamilton has a bad rep for being the racism capital of Canada,” St. Jean said.

“If we can make this happen here, I don’t see how we couldn’t influence change in other school boards and cities across the country.”

While the history of Black people in North America is largely defined by slavery and the struggle against oppression, Clarke and St. Jean said that shouldn’t be the sole focus of study in our schools.

“There’s so much more to Black history than slavery and The Struggles,” Clarke said. “There are so many good stories to tell that aren’t being told right now.”

Think of Hamilton’s own Lincoln Alexander who became the first Black MP and lieutenant governor of Ontario, or the first Black NHL player Willie O’Ree from Fredericton.

There are incredible stories of former slaves who came to settle in Canada and their ancestors who went on to become politicians, scientists, artists, renowned athletes and war heroes and who helped shape the country we live in today.

“I didn’t know a lot about our history growing up,” St. Jean said. “I know they went through some crap and I went through some crap growing up and I feel like I should’ve had this knowledge. I want my kids to not go through what I went through.”

St. Jean notes that many Black youths rely on their families to teach them the history of their ancestors but for Black people who, like him, are biracial, and who may only be parented by a non-Black parent, their history could be lost to them.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “We need to make the change.”

To that end, the BFM group is developing a formal proposal to send to Ontario’s Ministry of Education calling for Black history to become a permanent fixture of the curriculum.

A petition calling for this change is also available online calling for the inclusion of Black and Indigenous history to be added to Ontario’s curriculum.

There is also a rally and march planned for this Saturday (June 13) in Gore Park from 1 to 5 for people to gather and show their support for BLM and by extension the BFM movement.

At the rally, donations will be collected to help support a number of local organizations supporting our Black, racialized and Indigenous communities.

They have also started a Facebook group, called Ontario BLM #blackfuturesmatter movement, as space for people to connect and share resources to help bring about change.

“We need people to show their support and help us spread the word,” St. Jean said. “We’ve had a lot of caucasian people reaching out to ask us how they can use their privilege to help and we tell them to just keep spreading the word and show up.”

Clarke adds: “Silence doesn’t help. Your voice can really make a difference. Black futures deserve better.”

For more information about Black Futures Matter, visit their Facebook group. BFM encourages allies of the movement to reach out to them to connect.

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