An online petition started by a Ryerson University student calling for a course on race and ethnicity in Ontario high schools has garnered about 40,000 signatures in less than a week.
“Our current primary and secondary education programs do not address the existence of racism in Canada in the past and in the present,” the petition reads.
“Without educating students on the full extent of the history of racism and cultural assimilation in the past, we are perpetuating a continual cycle of colonialism today.”
Parnika Raj, who just completed her third year of media studies at Ryerson, says she wasn’t expecting to collect so many signatures so quickly. She says the petition was inspired by the recent worldwide Black Lives Matter protests against the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May, and subsequent conversations about systemic racism.
She says she learned about terms like “microaggressions” and “white fragility” in a race and ethnicity class in university, but realized not everyone may have the same understanding.
“Some of the courses really helped me to interpret the [Black Lives Matter] movement and what’s happening around the world,” Raj told CBC Toronto.
“I just really wish that everyone else had the same knowledge.”
Course ‘long overdue,’ professor says
Raj is asking the Ontario government to implement a mandatory secondary school course that would teach students about the impact of race in today’s society, systemic structures that uphold racism and Canada’s history of slavery, colonialism, and the mistreatment of Indigenous people and immigrants.
George Dei, a professor of social justice education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says a course on race is long overdue.
Dei, whose teaching and research focuses on anti-racism education, says issues surrounding race should be taught to students of all ages. Young people have agency to “radically transform the future,” he says.
“[Teaching more about race] is making us socially responsible to ask the difficult questions about social justice, about power, about privilege and responsibilities,” he said.
“These are not special interest subjects. They are subjects for the common cause. They are for the good of humanity.”
Dei says it’s important students understand that inequality and privilege exists based on race.
While the current curriculum includes lessons related to anti-racism and the promotion of inclusion, Dei says it “doesn’t cut it” when it comes to offering a critical and comprehensive understanding of race.
He says the curriculum is heavily Euro-centred and is lacking the history and experiences of Indigenous and Black people, as well as other races.
“If you believe that racism is a fact of our social existence, then we have to see how our curriculum picks up these questions, and that there are no silences around it, that we do talk about our responsibilities.”
Camille Logan, superintendent of education with the York Region District School Board, says while some teachers make a point of including lessons about race, it’s lacking in the school system.
“At this particular point in time, it’s up to individual teachers to be able to do that because there isn’t anything that’s specifically and explicitly in the curriculum,” Logan said.
She’d like to see issues of race integrated into the curriculum in all grades, not just a specific course. She says kids see race every day and ignoring that fact is problematic.
“There are studies that talk about how children are actually confused by [not addressing race] because we’re not specifically teaching in a way that helps them to think critically about race,” she said.
Both Logan and Dei say it’s important how educators teach lessons on race. They would like to see a course on teaching anti-racism introduced in teachers’ college.
Logan says if a course or changes to the curriculum are introduced, it’s imperative teachers talk about racism within systems and structures, not just in individual people.
“We need educators who can talk critically and think critically,” she said.
Curriculum inclusive and diverse, province says
The Ontario Ministry of Education wouldn’t say whether it will consider the petition.
In a statement, the ministry says it’s committed to providing opportunities for students to learn about collective responsibilities for inclusion and anti-racism. It says the ministry works to ensure the curriculum is inclusive and reflects Ontario’s diverse population.
“We value the full range of diversity among our students and aim to create inclusive school environments where everyone in our publicly funded education system feels engaged and included, regardless of background or personal circumstances,” the statement reads.
Similar petitions based on Raj’s have launched in Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Quebec.
Raj says now that her campaign has taken off, she plans to continue consulting with those in the education system and advocacy groups to gain a better understanding of Ontario’s current curriculum, and come up with a more narrow focus before officially bringing the idea to the province.
She says she hopes her effort succeeds because education is the first step in creating social change.
“If we’re not aware of the problem, how we’re supposed to change it?”