This story is part of a CBC News exploration of systemic racism, including anti-Black racism, and the promises for change made last summer.
Although her daughters, Savannah and Sahara, are in their first few years of elementary school, Cshandrika Bryan of Ajax, Ont., has already seen a wide range of examples in how the Black experience is reflected inside their classrooms.
At six-year-old Savannah’s former school, Bryan recalled, her teacher included Black voices in everyday lessons and helped guide fellow teaching staff in interactions with Black families.
However, at the girls’ current school, “there’s no Black representation in [any work] that they come home with,” even during Black History Month, said Bryan, who also has an 18-month-old toddler.
Amid continuing calls to address anti-Black racism in Canada’s K-12 classrooms, attention is turning to the training of educators, with experts calling for deep and ongoing anti-racist learning to become embedded for teacher candidates and in-service teachers.
Over the past decades, aspiring educators discussed equity, inclusion and diversity during their studies without necessarily identifying anti-Black racism specifically — but that is changing, says Ann E. Lopez, professor of educational leadership and policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto.
Rather than simply being a topic of a one-off workshop, explored only in an elective course or “something that you do if you want to,” Lopez said, it’s important for anti-Black racism to be highlighted amid wider conversations and discourse around racism and become “endemic and embedded” into everything educators are learning.
“Racism is systemic. Injustices are systemic. So you cannot change something that’s systemic and structural with Band-Aids — and that’s what we’ve been doing,” she said.
White students still make up the majority of those studying to become teachers in Canada, Lopez pointed out, and some may lack experience with backgrounds different from their own. Exploring anti-Black racism more deeply can create discomfort, she said, as it highlights how current systems and structures privilege white people.
“In order to create equity and to disrupt inequities, the systems that have been in place and normalized must be disrupted. And when that happens, it creates tensions for some,” Lopez said.
“There are some people who are sort of buying the superficial notion of multiculturalism, that everything is OK and if you just work harder, if you just play by the rules, everyone will get ahead. But we all know that is not to be true, because we know exclusions occur in many ways.”
In her teaching at OISE, for instance, Lopez strives to ensure that educational leadership students learn about racism and anti-Black racism, how it is reflected within the education system, how they themselves are implicated and the ongoing work needed to uproot it.
“It is one: naming; two: understanding how it is manifested; three: for folks to begin to understand how they’re implicated, what they need to learn, what they need to unlearn. And fourthly: It’s so important that all of this work is sustained,” she said.
The goal is having educators who make space for engaging in difficult conversations and are open to challenging past practices to find new ways of doing things, Lopez said, along with a commitment to continued training, education and procuring new materials and resources.
‘What we need is people to commit to action’
At the University of Regina, faculty of education dean Jerome Cranston’s approach is to embed ongoing anti-racist teaching into the courses at his school, while acknowledging there’s always room for improvement.
For Cranston, that translates to weaving anti-racist learning into every single course in an intentional way — and not burying it within exploration of different initiatives and topics — and then offering standalone workshops, professional development and other opportunities.
“It’s a combination of both putting it in the courses and then having a recurring professional development initiative program [and] topical speakers who engage with our students,” he said.
“If we’re going to make a difference, we need to move beyond thinking that a three-hour, six-hour, nine-hour workshop is going to resolve the problem. So in a four-year degree program, it’s going to mean a commitment over the entire four years.”
That time and space are needed for respectful and thoughtful discourse that Cranston said he hopes will lead to transformational change for Canada’s education system.
“You begin by raising awareness to the topic, and you need to do that in respectful ways to engage people in real thoughtful consideration for things that they may not have seen in the past,” he said.
“Then it needs to move to action…. What we need is people to commit to action to make a difference.”
Much is asked of teachers, Cranston acknowledged, but there is great value to educators being committed to actively fighting anti-Black racism.
“Teachers have a heavy load. They absolutely do. What we’re asking them to do is take on more work,” he said. “But, there’s a terrific opportunity — if we continue to support them, give them opportunities to learn — that we will make a lot of progress.”
Back in Ajax, Ont., Cshandrika Bryan said she believes teachers can start making progress even by taking small steps. That means increasing Black representation in school libraries by offering more books by and about Black people, for instance, or choosing a Black troupe when planning a performing arts experience for students.
It also means engaging with and truly hearing out Black students and their families.
“Just listen to the parents and listen to what actually the children themselves are saying,” she said.
This project is a part of Being Black in Canada. For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians, check out Being Black in Canada here.