It’s unfortunate that anyone should think that Canada is shirking its responsibility to include African-American and African-Canadian narratives in Canadian history. Most Canadian school children are given the opportunity to learn about The Underground Railroad, with substantial amounts of literature, live drama and other educational materials readily available for use in the classroom. High school students have the opportunity to extensively study the history of the Canadian/American relationship, gaining insights into Canada’s role in the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement, all key components for a good grounding in African-American studies.
That’s not to say the Canadian curriculum has been perfected as it pertains to Black History. It’s only in recent years that more than a token mention has been made of Canada’s lengthy period of legal slavery (it wasn’t officially abolished in the British Empire until 1834), most specifically in the tragic story of a slave named Marie-Joseph Angelique who was convicted and executed under dubious evidence of starting a fire that burned much of Old Montreal in 1734.
Nor has enough mention been made of Richard Pierpoint, an African-born former slave who emigrated to Canada after the American Revolution and was an early leader of the African-Canadian community and a champion of their cause to the governments of the day. The history of the black Loyalist communities is Nova Scotia is only beginning to come to light as well.
But these shortcomings aside, there is another, more compelling argument to suggest that someone unfamiliar with Canadian history and culture may believe that we are somehow avoiding the subject of Black History in our schools. Quite frankly, we are.
Since the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was passed in 1988 Canada has officially accepted and embraced the equal value of each citizen’s cultural heritage and traditions, regardless of whether they were born in Canada or not. In America the “melting pot” approach to immigration encourages newcomers to assimilate the language, customs and mannerisms their new home in order to become Americans. In Canada on the other hand, immigrants are encouraged to preserve and respect the culture and heritage of their place of origin while still playing their part in the development and betterment of Canadian society.
Canada’s multicultural policy plays an enormous role in education. Since education is free and mandatory for all children the classroom becomes the site of some of Canada’s most diverse cultural interaction, with children of every colour, faith and background sitting in the same room, learning together.
In such an environment the idea of learning about just one child’s history (ie the black kid’s) at the expense of all others (whose histories are equally valid) makes no sense. Thus, in Canada we don’t teach black history, white history, native history or the specific history of any racial, ethnic or linguistic group as if it were an independent entity standing aside from the mainstream, allowing only a small portion of our students any ownership in the narrative. Instead, we teach Canadian history, in all its cultural pluralities, so that the entirety of our story as a nation can be embraced and celebrated by each and every one of us.