Black history gets short shrift in new Quebec textbooks

Published Feb 15, 2018 in the Montreal Gazette

By Robert Green

It seems a year doesn’t pass where we are not painfully reminded of the ignorance that large segments of our population have with respect to the history of black people living in the territory we now know as Quebec. From opposition to changing racist place names, to the public defence of the all too frequent donning of blackface, to the denials of the need to address systemic racism, in each case we hear a familiar refrain: Quebecers are not racist, and to suggest otherwise amounts to Quebec bashing.

As a teacher of Quebec history, I am always saddened by such reactionary sentiments. If we knew the truth about our own history, I believe such insensitive and defensive reactions would be far less frequent. Others might instead open their minds to the perspectives of their black fellow citizens, and in the process, help to create the kind of society where the voices and contributions of all citizens are valued, regardless of ethnicity or skin colour.

Indeed, this very sentiment was expressed in the preamble of the National Assembly’s 2006 proclamation of February as Black History Month in Quebec. It states that raising awareness about black history “helps to encourage the full participation of all in Quebec society, to promote inclusion and openness to pluralism and to strengthen intercultural rapprochement between all Quebecers.”

When the new government-approved Secondary 4 history textbook arrived in November, I was therefore curious to see to what extent it would reflect the National Assembly’s powerful words.

To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. Rather than reflecting the Assembly’s words, this book makes a mockery of them. It contains all of two references to the existence of black Quebecers: a mention of Rufus Rockhead’s Little Burgundy nightclub and a reference to Haitian immigrants and the election of the first black MNA in 1976. We learn nothing of the history of Little Burgundy’s black community; nothing of the economic and social discrimination black Quebecers have faced. The textbook also fails to shed any light on the history of the minstrel shows that sold out theatres in Montreal and Quebec.

The Secondary 3 textbook introduced last year isn’t any better. Aside from a few references to the existence of slavery in Quebec, the only mention of an actual black person is a box describing the life of rebel slave Marie-Joseph Angélique. While this story has in recent years been the subject of an entire book, play and documentary film, the textbook dedicates fewer than 50 words to it.

The important omissions in the textbooks are far too many to list here. However, Robyn Maynard’s new book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to Present provides a good overview. It challenges Canadians to not only open their eyes to this history, but also to reconsider some of the country’s most cherished myths; myths that have served to perpetuate the oppression of black Canadians.

Textbook omissions are only part of the problem. The official list of topics that serves as the basis for the ministry exam does not contain a single one related to black history. The list is also so long that it leaves teachers almost no time for anything else. Even those who believe in the importance of teaching black history are likely to be discouraged, for fear of not adequately covering exam material.

Until the government goes back to the drawing board and creates a truly inclusive curriculum, Quebecers will be left with a situation that is as painfully ironic as it is unacceptable: Black History Month will be discussed and celebrated at events throughout the province while remaining largely absent from classrooms where the history of our society is taught.

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