By Natashia Wynter
Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks are familiar Black American names associated with Black History month, but what is the Black Canadian experience? Who are the influential voices here in Canada? What is Black Canadian history?
Those are some of the questions Natasha Henry asked herself during middle school and high school. Henry didn’t recognize herself in any of the history lessons.
“Where are the Black people? What were they doing?” Henry recalled asking herself.
Henry wanted to learn more. She began reading, researching, and attending events to pursue Black Canadian history. Her passion for learning eventually led her to study at York University.
“I was motivated because I didn’t want other Black children to go through the same thing,” said Henry. “And I didn’t want it for my future children.”
Henry, now an educator, historian and president of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), launched a Twitter campaign called #BlackedOutHistory. The campaign highlighted how little Black history is covered in textbooks taught in Canadian classrooms—leaving many teachers to use their discretion to choose whether to include it.
The campaign drew a response from the Ontario Ministry of Education, but Henry believes it fell short.
“When the campaign was first launched in October, they issued a statement saying essentially nothing, which was that there are opportunities for teachers to teach about Black History throughout the curriculum. And they gave some examples, which we all know there are optional topics in the curriculum, nothing mandated,” said Henry.
Henry adds that it is not only incumbent upon Black parents and Black students to marshal change. Non-Black parents and students can and should also lend their voice to see a difference in the curriculum.
“We need to see better representation and a critical approach to the teaching of all our subjects and all of the discipline areas,” said Henry. “To allow for an examination of race and racism, and the contributions of different groups.”
When author Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore began her journey into the pursuit of Canada’s Black history, she never knew that her passion would lead her to the creation of her book, Trailblazers: The Black Pioneers Who Have Shaped Canada.
“The overall lack of representation of Black history, Black representation, and Black visibility in education and mainstream narratives about Canada was the predominant catalyst for why I felt compelled to go on this journey,” said Ridley-Padmore.
The Trailblazers children’s book introduces young readers to underrepresented voices in Canadian history. The book tells stories about 40 Black pioneers, which go as far back as the 16th century. Each story is accompanied by illustrations created by Merryl-Royce Ndema-Moussa and a poem.
“Canada’s Black history dates back over 400 years and has been instrumental in strengthening our economy, bringing about innovation, adding to our culture, and has had wide-reaching impacts across the world,” said Ridley-Padmore. “And yet, has largely been erased from the curriculum.”
Ridley-Padmore admits that her book is a great start, but more work is to be done. She has hope for the children who read her book.
“I hope they’ll know that their worth is inherent, that they come from greatness, and that they too can be a trailblazer,” said Ridley-Padmore.
Correction: This story has been updated from a previous version that misspelled illustrator Merryl-Royce Ndema-Moussa’s name.