Forgotten identity: Alberta black history not taught in schools

Provincial government may increase black history subjects with curriculum update

By Kyle Muzyka, CBC News 

Violet King, the first black female lawyer in Canada, shaking the hand of E.J. McCormick, with whom she articled. (Glenbow Museum/Supplied)

Bashir Mohamed came into the world stateless.

He was born in Kenya in 1994 as a Somali refugee.

At the time, Somalia’s central government had collapsed and Kenya did not recognize those born there as citizens, so he was without citizenship.

He and his family were granted asylum in Canada three years later. Mohamed remembers landing in Canada on Feb. 12, the dead of winter.

His sister convinced him snow was sugar.

“I put it in my backpack and everything,” he said. “Of course, it melted.”​

Mohamed went to Northmount School, then Dickinsfield School and Queen Elizabeth High School. While he was there, he learned about settlers moving to Canada — but only recalled those from Europe.

“I fell into the stereotype of settlers being one of the only groups of immigrants at the beginning,” he told CBC News.

It wasn’t until he began to dig into the black history of Edmonton and Alberta that he began to feel like he was home.

This article, titled “We want no dark spots in Alberta,” was originally a speech from C.E. Simmons, an MP from Lethbridge. (Supplied)

Mohamed, a University of Alberta student who has been vocal about his experiences with racism in Edmonton, learned about the black communities of Amber Valley and Keystone.

He learned about the contributions of John Ware to the modern-day Calgary Stampede, and how Violet King, the first black female lawyer in Canada, graduated from the U of A.

He learned how Alberta was the only province to legally recognize the Ku Klux Klan, and he learned the KKK used to openly hold cross burnings in Edmonton.

He also read speeches from Alberta politicians about how there should be “no more dark spots in Alberta,” referring to black people.

Despite all the negativity, Mohamed felt empowered to learn about black Albertans who had made contributions to the province and the country. However, he had more questions about the role of black settlers.

“I wonder why it was overlooked,” he said. “I feel like this is a huge part of our identity that I guess has been almost forgotten about — and I wonder if there’s a reason for that.”

Curriculum update

The Alberta government cited two specific examples of black history in the curriculum: In Grade 5, students learn about the Underground Railroad; and in Grade 7, students look at the contributions of Canada’s black communities to Canada.

David Eggen, Alberta’s minister of education, said the topic of black history in Alberta’s curriculum needs improvement.

“I think that the Alberta curriculum in regards to black history is OK, but here we are in the midst of a curriculum update,” he told CBC News.

Bashir Mohamed said he would have felt more Albertan if he learned about black Albertans while he was in school. (Bashir Mohamed/Supplied)

“I think it’s a very good time for us to make sure that the population of Alberta is reflected in our curriculum in a more reasonable way.”

Eggen said teachers themselves can make decisions based on what they think would benefit their students.

But the Edmonton Public School Board said there are no authorized teaching resources for teachers to use. In a statement, the board said the onus is on the province to include or omit what it deems important.

Mohamed said regardless of who makes it, the change must be made. He said Canadians either forget or simply don’t know about the country’s black history — and the shameful feeling that often goes along with it.

“Albertans don’t want to own up to history because of the feeling of shame,” he said.

Eggen said it’s important to learn from the past.

John Ware, seen here with his dog Bismark in 1891, is one of the black Albertans who have contributed to the province’s history. (Glenbow Museum/Supplied)

“I think you have to look history square in the eye,” he said. “You don’t avoid history, rather you must learn from it.”

Curriculum not the only place to learn

Edmonton’s historian laureate, Chris Chang-Yen Phillips, said he agrees black history should get more attention in Edmonton schools. But that isn’t the only venue for kids to learn, he said.

“Our education system sucks because it doesn’t seem to create citizens, really,” he said. “It seems to create people who can fill in multiple-choice tests.”

Instead, Chang-Yen Phillips said he hopes students are more engaged with their communities — which can directly lead to learning about the contributions black Albertans made to the province.

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips said Edmontonians shouldn’t just learn about their city’s history in school. (Facebook)

“I want kids to be, like, pushed out of a school and learn about the fellow citizens around them,” he said.

However students learn, Mohamed said learning about black people’s contributions to the province empowered him, and he thinks it can do that for others, too.

“In one sense, it can empower people from those communities,” he said. “But in the other sense, if we forget about it, then it can, you know, empower discrimination, racism, Islamophobia and all that.”

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