Advocates want more of B.C.’s – Black experience taught in schools

Photo courtesy of BC Black History Awareness Society

Calls to include British Columbia’s Black history in the public-school curriculum have grown over the past year. Many Black British Columbians have said that the province is not doing enough to ensure people are taught about the history of Black people in B.C.

“When I first came to this province, and for much of the time when my kids were growing up, I knew very little,” says June Francis, associate professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University and a multiple award-winning educator. “I just assumed there had not been a Black community there.”

Born in Jamaica, Francis is an advocate for equity and the inclusion of racialized groups which extends to an inclusive teaching of history in BC. “Just because it’s not recorded, or taught in the official books or curriculum, does not mean it doesn’t exist,” she says.

Even though Black history is not officially part of the province’s education curriculum, the Ministry of Education “encourages” school districts to educate students on Black History Months or highlight Black history during the month of February, leaving the decision up to teachers whether or not to do so. According to a statement from the Ministry, “B.C.’s curriculum supports the teaching of Black history topics, such as the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Underground Railroad. The curriculum also celebrates the many contributions that Black Canadians have made and continue to make in our communities.”

In addition, the provincial government recently commemorated August 1 as “Emancipation Day,” marking the day in 1834 when the British parliament voted to abolish slavery across the British Empire – including pre-Confederation Canada.

However, the Black British Columbian experience remains unknown to most people, including Black British Columbians, and contributes to their feeling of not belonging. In 2006 in Grade 10, Josh Robertson, curator of the new Hopes Meets Action exhibit at the Royal BC Museum centered around the history of Black people in British Columbia recalls, he had a similar experience to June Francis.

“I wrote a Canadian history paper in high school about Black immigration, and the immigration practices put into effect to stop Black people from immigrating to Canada,” recalls Robertson. “I was told upon handing in my paper that that was not Canadian history.”

History is taught with intent

Francis says that education is key to shaping how people come to know – or believe they know – the world. She argues that history taught from the top down, that is, history centered around the most powerful figures and institutions, obscures the truth by leaving out unpleasant truths that continue to shape modern Canada. As an example, she also points out that in the early twentieth century Canada implemented discriminatory immigration policies designed to keep Black people from coming into the country.

June Francis. | Photo courtesy of SFU

“History coming from the top down is highly politicized; it often erases many perspectives. It doesn’t reflect the truth, of course, because it’s a version that has an intent,” says Francis. “History in that perspective is political. It’s being taught to reinforce a certain view of the world; it’s been taught to reinforce certain power structures.”

Robertson, a musician and a founding member of the Hogan’s Alley Society, adds that Black people were instrumental to the founding of B.C. but were treated as disposable once the cities began to grow and their stories excluded from history books. Much of Robertson’s work is dedicated to curating Black history and art in a decolonial way.

Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley was an area near the intersection of Main and Prior Streets in Strathcona which multiple generations of mainly African Canadian workers and families called home for decades. Also known for its restaurants, clubs, and other businesses, its heyday was in the 1930s and 1940s. The construction of the Georgia viaduct in the early 1970s displaced this community.

Black people have been in B.C. longer than many other non-Indigenous people. They arrived in British Columbia less than a decade after the founding of the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1849. More than 800 Black people came to the colony between 1858 and 1860, fleeing racial animosity in California and encouraged by the first governor of both Vancouver Island and British Columbia, James Douglas. Considered the “father” of the province Douglas himself was of Black and European descent, the only person of non-white ancestry to govern B.C. until Ujjal Dosanjh became premier in 2000. And Douglas needed the support of colonial Victoria’s Black community to achieve his political goals that were vital to the creation of British Columbia, says Francis.

Given how Black people in colonial Victoria affected the history of the province, Francis considers it very strange that the Black community in cities like Victoria are still relatively small. There are only roughly 5000 Black people in Greater Victoria which has a population of nearly 360,000.

“That strikes me as something extremely puzzling,” says Francis. “Where did they go? What happened to them? Why did they not thrive? And why do we today see so few descendants of that group?” For B.C. as a whole, according to the 2016 census, more than 43,000 Black people live here.

Inclusion of Black history makes B.C. history accurate

“I think what was striking was the amount of Black folks who looked to B.C. for refuge from racial terrorism but often found that the British form of racism was not better but different,” he says. “When we white-wash history that does not fit the romanticized colonial narrative, we are missing an accurate depiction of the richness of our collective history.”

Josh Robertson. | Photo courtesy of BC Black History Awareness Society

For Robertson, the lack of recognition of the presence of Black history in school curriculum has an effect of Black Canadians.

“British Columbian history, even from the colonial founding, has had Black folks centrally contributing to our history,” says Robertson. “The fact that very little of this is known or officially recognized is a major reason why Black Canadians continue to feel a lack of belonging.”

He adds that Black people have played an important role in the history of B.C. ‘s labour movements as well forming Canadian federal unity and that history deserves to be fully included in a future B.C. curriculum.

“What I envision is a curriculum that both tells a decolonial history of these lands, giving importance to pre-colonial history,” says Robertson, “as well as giving a full accounting from a Black and Indigenous lens of our rich history.”

For more information about June Francis, visit www.beedie.sfu.ca/profiles/JuneFrancis

For more information about Josh Robertson and the Hope Meets Action exhibit, visit www.bcblackhistory.ca/hope-meets-action

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