If you're waiting for our school curriculum to deal with racism, then you may feel you're riding in the back of a mighty slow bus. The Ministry of Education promised to change the curriculum a decade ago. Ask students and teachers what's what and they'll tell you that the teaching of anti-racism still occurs by chance rather than by design.
This confused me because I thought the racism question had been solved seven years ago when the Harris Conservatives disbanded the Ministry of Education's anti-racism division. Racism's dead, right? Isn't that why the issue is so haphazardly discussed in Ontario schools?
Consider, then, that:
The word "racism" cannot be found within the new curriculum for any compulsory course.
"Racism" appears in only two of 22 ministry-approved Canadian history textbooks published prior to 2000. (If school budgets were larger, teachers could buy recently published textbooks that are more likely to have the word in their indexes.)
Courses and workshops in anti-racist teaching methods are elective, so only those teachers already interested receive advanced instruction on the topic.
How can our kids - future mayors, police chiefs, principals and provincial premiers - uncover racism in our society, never mind try to challenge and eliminate it, when schools, boards of education and the ministry cannot guarantee they will even read or discuss this issue in school? In the province's first anti-discrimination curriculum evaluation, which I conducted as a pilot study at Wilfrid Laurier University, first-year students were asked to reflect on their education.
"I can't say that I remember learning about one racial or ethnocultural role model," says one 19-year-old male. "I can't think of one person who was not European. I can't think of one Asian person or one black person."
"There was never any acknowledgement of Ramadan or Black History Month," says a female graduate, "and there were students who were black and Muslim. They were just never represented."
Comments like these indicate why high school graduates gave their schools a D+ for failing to meet the ministry's own guidelines.
"That's not surprising," says one Ontario high school teacher who includes anti-racist education in her work. "But it's not politically safe to talk about this on the record," says her colleague, a teacher who's formed a school Equity Club in order to remedy the curriculum's shortcomings.
Those who study education agree: only those teachers who are both interested and knowledgeable teach anti-racism.
As George Dei, a professor and chair of sociology and equity studies in education at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, notes, "There are a number of good and excellent teachers, and we need to recognize them for their anti-racism work.
"But there are also many who have closed their minds." In dealing with these people, he says, "We cannot wish racism away. We must acknowledge and respond to it."
Ten years ago the obstacle of racism was officially acknowledged when the ministry collaborated with the NDP government to create a document called Guidelines For Anti-racism And Ethnocultural Equity In Ontario Schools. In it were eight curriculum guidelines designed to help schools overcome "existing policies, procedures and practices in the school system (that) are racist in their impact, if not their intent."
The guidelines declared that accurate information must be provided on a range of ethnocultural issues.
According to Dei, those guidelines were a step in the right direction, "but there was nothing to back it up." The guidelines failed, in part because they lacked enforcement and accountability measures. "Anti-racist policies need teeth and must produce consequences for those who fail to implement them."
However, anti-racist policy also failed for other reasons. "The outgoing government practised the politics of division," says Dei. "They dismissed people's concerns about inequity as the voice of special interests."
Keren Brathwaite, associate director of University of Toronto's transitional year program and chair of the Organization of Parents of Black Children (OPBC), says the abandonment of anti-racism education is particularly disconcerting when one considers that "African Canadians and Portuguese Canadians are being streamed, not toward the universities and the professions, but toward the ranks of the unemployed or under-employed."
To be sure, systematically challenging racism within schools and society requires that the province keep its decade-old promise.
To do this the ministry needs to ensure that:
Curriculum guidelines are fully enacted within all school boards, along with additional guidelines devoted to challenging all forms of oppression (e.g., sexism and heterosexism).
The causes and patterns of racism are included as discussion topics as often as possible in new curriculum, textbooks and learning resources.
Anti-racist teaching methods must become mandatory for graduation from all Ontario teachers colleges, and educators must be committed to teaching them.
Graduating students should annually evaluate the anti-racist education they have received.
"Anti-racism can no longer be left to the discretion of schools, principals and individual teachers," says Dei.
Now is the right time to tell the Liberal government to complete what the others before them failed to do.
Kevin Black is a social researcher. The subject of his Masters thesis was the student-based anti-racism curriculum.