The conversation

Black History: How Racism In Ontario Schools Today Is Linked To A History Of Segregation

Student of school division No. 13 with the teacher Verlyn Ladd, who taught at the school from 1939 to 1958. Class of 1951, Buxton, Raleigh Township, Ontario. (Buxton National Historic Site & Museum), Author provided Toronta’s Africentric Alternative School in Toronto opened in 2009 after years of advocacy and months of heated public debate and criticism about the meaning and importance of the school. Yolisa Dalamba, a proponent of the creation of the Africentric School, reads her notes during a debate in Toronto on Jan. 29, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS / JP Moczulski. THE CANADIAN PRESS / JP Moczulski For some, the school was a push towards fair school practices within an educational system that left black students largely decoupled. For others, the school represented a newer, more modern form of segregation, separate from the multicultural learning practices promoted in all schools in Ontario. The assumption here was that Ontario always had fair and open schools. Many argued that separate institutions (especially those that took into account the intersections of race and access to education) do not reflect the inclusive education promoted by Canada. What many Canadians do not know, however, is that the province has a long and complex history of segregated schooling that begins with the creation of public school systems in the province. Indeed, racism and segregation remain embedded in the institutional fabric of formal school systems across Canada. Exclusion Becomes Politics When I started looking for black teachers in Canada for my book Schooling the System: A History of Black Teachers, I was impressed by how many women worked in separate schools in the early 19th century to provide education for black students . I soon found that most of these women could not find employment in public school systems due to discriminatory recruitment practices that led them to mostly black schools. These schools were created as a result of a series of exclusive social practices, but were later supported by formal educational policies. “Training the System: A History of Black Teachers” by Funké Aladejebi. (McGill-Queen’s Press) The Common School Act of 1850 established what was already practiced by local communities across Ontario. The law allowed any group of five black families to ask the local school trustees to set up a separate school. The law also allowed the creation of separate schools for Roman Catholic and Protestant families. While the law was intended to allow freedom of choice in various communities, it gave many racers the ammunition they needed to enforce segregation. In various areas, white parishioners used the law to force black students into separate facilities. These individuals refused to allow black students access to public (then joint) schools, citing the 1850 Act as a basis. Black children isolated, turned away While there were occasions when black children were allowed to enter joint schools, they were often forced to sit on separate benches or to sit in isolation in these classrooms. Most of the time, black children were not allowed to attend joint schools and had to attend separate black facilities. As a result, the passage of the Common School Act of 1850 further anchored black students in substandard facilities across Ontario, often forcing members of the Black Canadian community to start their own schools or use facilities made available to them by local trustees. While the Common School Act of 1850 was designed to create equitable education between racial and religious groups, expectations fell short of the ideal. Race-based segregated schools flourished in Niagara, St. Catharines, Dresden, Simcoe, Chatham, Buxton, Sandwich, Gosfield, Mulden, Anderdon, and Colchester, where the last segregated school closed in 1965, more than ten years after the historic Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case was won in the United States. Read more: Racial segregation is returning to U.S. schools 60 years after being banned by the Supreme Court. In the US, many black teachers lost to Brown vs. Board of Ed. Their work and often could not enter public boards. In Canada, similar but unrecognized forms of racial prejudice ensured that black educators did not gain access to public school systems until the mid-20th century. When the black schools opened, members and teachers of the black community made sure that these schools were open to students of all races. Scholar Alison Norman, who researched school teachers at Six Nations of the Grand River, has researched the history of black educators who taught at Six Nations, including generations of the Alexander family. These black and indigenous educators worked together to maintain cultural and community ties. In my fellowship, I’m just starting to examine points of convergence between black and indigenous communities and how they experienced different but interconnected models of separate schooling. Read more: Indian Day School Survivors Seek Truth and Justice Some institutions, such as Buxton Mission School, have developed elite learning programs for black and white students. Buxton was one of the few separate schools that offered classical education (with an emphasis on Latin, Greek, mathematics, theology, history, and geography). The school prepared many black students for university in Canada and the United States. Gerrymandering School Districts Despite the existence of integrated schools like the Buxton Mission School, the Common School Act of 1850 exposed unequal institutional support for black students. In Charlotteville, Ontario, the school district boundaries were changed to prevent black students from attending public schools in the area. The historian Robin Winks describes this as “the first and possibly most important legal action in which it is attempted to separate Negro students”. Local trustees have often struggled to find certified educators to teach black children, and many schools lacked the resources to meet provincial guidelines. When Wilson Brooks was hired as the first black educator in a Toronto public school in 1952, black students continued to face public school challenges as a direct result of these historical exclusions. The continuity of racial discrimination in the Ontario educational system was pervasive well into the 21st century, as black students had limited access to fair learning outcomes in Ontario schools. Black educators, meanwhile, faced isolation and discrimination, and developed strategies and practices of resistance. Ongoing Realities of Racial Injustice In the 2017 report, “Towards Racial Justice in Education,” researchers found that black students were less likely than white and other racial students to be enrolled in Toronto academic schools. In addition, black students dropped out of school twice as often as other students. Black students were also under-represented in gifted programs and over-represented in elementary schools in all schools in Ontario. All of this meant that despite increasing pressure on different educational models in schools in Ontario, curricula and classroom practices have not been able to create inclusive learning spaces for black students. That responsibility has often been left to the few black teachers in Ontario schools or community activists who do programming to address black student engagement. Recently, parents of children attending the Africentric Alternative School launched a petition after discovering that virtual learning was not available to students at the school during the COVID-19 pandemic. While most of the Toronto District School Board’s institutions developed online learning options during the pandemic, that option was not available for alternative schools, leading to calls for action from community members. In addition, the fluctuating school enrollment has led to increasing funding restrictions reminiscent of the individual schools of the 1850s. The current debates about black access to education reflect the reality of racial injustice that is ingrained in our schools. Ultimately, the Common School Act of 1850 was one of many directives that discriminated against black students throughout the Canadian school system. This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. Read more: Funké Aladejebi does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.