Siblings Greg and Coleen Birkett didn’t learn much at all about the Black Canadian experience through their elementary and high school careers.
Likewise, when they attended teachers' college; there was no mechanism by which future educators could learn to present their students with the often-ignored accomplishments of Black Canadians.
So they are now doing something about it.
The pair of Toronto District School Board teachers have so far this month presented two of the nine seminars in their online series — hosting almost 300 people for the last one — aiming to help teachers and school administrators learn about and then teach Black perspectives and influences across disciplines.
“It just felt as though there were certain things that were not being told to us, that were not being taught to us,” said younger brother Greg Birkett, who was born in Canada after Coleen had arrived and joined a grade 2 classroom.
“Black men did fight in [the two World Wars], Black men did fight in the War of 1812, all of these moments where Canada was carving out its identity, Confederation, all of these things, it felt as though Black people weren’t present or didn't have anything to say or didn't participate,” he said, noting the absence of Black servicemen and home-front women represented in teaching around Remembrance Day as one example.
This is the second year the pair are running the programming with their publisher, Nelson Education, which says attendance at the See Us Learn Us series has almost doubled.
Coleen Birkett, who came to Canada and joined grade 2, said educators who took part last year asked for it again so they could invite colleagues to attend.
“We are getting educators right across the country participating from Newfoundland all the way to Victoria in British Columbia,” she said, noting the content includes sections on the Black experience in B.C., where many migrated from California in the 1800s, and those who moved from Oklahoma and Kansas to the Prairies.
“Within Canada itself, there is so much Black history that I don’t even know about, that I’m continually learning about, and it's good to know that that's being brought up in the classrooms now or at least trying to,” says Jacob Robinson.
There is a thirst for the content because the lack of representation more broadly hasn’t changed much since then, according to a more recent graduate of Ontario’s schools.
“Within Canada itself, there is so much Black history that I don’t even know about, that I’m continually learning about, and it's good to know that that's being brought up in the classrooms now or at least trying to,” said Jacob Robinson, who is studying tourism at the University of Waterloo and has taken part in previous panels with the Birketts.
“For a lot of teachers, it's just apprehension,” Greg Birkett said. “They don’t know the content, and when you're up in front of a classroom, you want to feel as though you’re an expert, you want to feel confident and competent.”
By including and amplifying these stories, the teachers expect Black students will be more engaged, and thus more likely to work harder and produce better outcomes.
Black students, and especially boys, are much more likely to be pushed out of school early or directed away from higher education, which can further widen an existing racialized wealth gap and perpetuate other inequalities.
The lack of Black representation in the curriculum is mirrored in the classroom itself, with less than one in 10 Ontario teachers and school counsellors in 2006 identifying as a member of a visible minority compared to almost 23 per cent of the general population, according to research from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the University of Western Ontario.
Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer
Editor's note: This article was updated at 4:55p.m. EST on Feb. 25, 2022 to clarify Greg Birkett was born in Canada after Coleen's arrival.