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By Raman Gill, teacher, Vancouver

As Black History Month is approaching in February, I, like many teachers, am reflecting on how to celebrate the vast culture and contributions of people of African descent with my students. Preceded by Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on January 20, Black History Month is a time to honour such brilliant leaders whose message of peace, equality, and solidarity still resonates in light of the present-day Black Lives Matter movement. The brutal murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are tragic reminders that the present is a reflection of the past; colonial perceptions of people of African descent linger to this day, resulting in disproportionate arrests, harassment, and police violence toward Black individuals. Celebrating Black History Month and including African descent Canadian history within our social studies curriculum would enhance cross-cultural understanding as well as Black students’ sense of identity and belonging in our schools.

I must admit that I was minimally aware of Black history in BC and Canada until I met Yasin Kiraga of the African Descent Society of BC. Two teacher colleagues and I had arranged a meeting with him in the fall of 2019 to discuss potential ideas for celebrating Black History Month in our schools. Born and raised in Uganda, Yasin arrived in Canada in 2009 and pursued a degree in political science and international relations at UBC. He currently leads walking tours through Strathcona and Hogan’s Alley and organizes the yearly African Descent Festival. An urban historian, he is a storyteller who firmly believes that racial divides can be bridged through teaching history and sharing culture. In Yasin’s words, “African descent history is Canadian history.”

The arrival of the first Africans in Canada can be traced back to the 1600s. They were among millions of Africans brought to America via the transatlantic slave trade. Many had been sold to Canadians by American slave owners, while some, like Harriet Tubman, had escaped to Canada on their own. Their stories of strength, courage, and perseverance in the struggle for freedom are an integral part of Canadian heritage. Although Canada played a significant role in providing freedom to many African Americans via the Underground Railroad, it is necessary to acknowledge our own history of race-based discrimination and human rights violations. It is a history that must be explored further and a story that must be told in our classrooms.

African Canadians’ social, political, scientific, and cultural contributions have greatly helped to shape the country. Among prominent Black Canadians was Governor James Douglas who helped approximately 800 African Americans escape to Fort Victoria in 1858. Some of these pioneers settled in Salt Spring Island and downtown Vancouver by the late 1800s. Mifflin Gibbs was one of the individuals assisted by Sir James Douglas. He was a judge, banker, and activist for his community who became the first Black politician in BC in 1866. As an elected official, Mifflin Gibbs helped lead British Columbia into Confederation.

Barbara Howard, a prominent African Canadian woman, made history as the first Black female sprinter to represent Canada and competed at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia. She was also the first teacher of colour to be hired by the Vancouver School Board, and she went on to teach at Hastings, Henry Hudson, Strathcona, and Trafalgar elementary schools over a 40-year period. A more well-known African Canadian was Viola Desmond, a successful businesswoman and civil rights activist from Nova Scotia. Forcibly removed from the whites-only section of a movie theatre in 1946, Desmond fought against segregation, inspiring the Canadian civil rights movement.

As we continued to collaborate during the school year, Yasin shared his archive of black and white photographs of Hogan’s Alley: the once vibrant, predominantly Black neighborhood bordering Strathcona. Dating back to the early 1900s, Hogan’s Alley was located between Main Street and Jackson Avenue, extending to Union St. to the north and Prior St. to the south. The area has a special connection to the legendary Jimi Hendrix, who would visit his grandmother, Nora Hendrix, a resident of Hogan’s Alley. The neighborhood was also the scene of many restaurants and businesses, not to mention bustling jazz clubs where Jimi Hendrix performed alongside the Crump Twins. Home to African Canadians who had their roots in California and Oklahoma, Hogan’s Alley was the heart of Vancouver’s Black community until the mid-1970s when, sadly, it was displaced by the construction of the Georgia viaduct.

These largely untold stories of people of African descent are embedded within both our local and national history. The struggles of African Canadians have resulted from the massive displacement and centuries of institutional racism that still persists, as evidenced by Yasin’s recent eviction from his Hogan’s Alley office. But like his predecessors, he is incredibly resilient—determined to advocate for his community, especially for Black youth, who frequently face racism and micro-aggressions, both at school and online.

During the past year, Yasin has shared his knowledge of African descent history with students and teachers in many Vancouver schools. With the direction and guidance of the Vancouver School Board, Yasin and I, in collaboration with Professor Larry Davis, compiled this valuable knowledge into an African Descent History in BC course. Designed for Grade 12 students, it will be offered in Vancouver secondary schools as of September 2021. The course curriculum and resources will also be available to other school districts in the province. The intent of this year-long course is to provide an opportunity for students and teachers to explore African descent history beyond Black History Month. According to Yasin, “This course will highlight the missing pages of Black history in BC,” and empower Black students, while instilling a sense of pride in their heritage. It can also facilitate cross-cultural understanding and allyship within our diverse student community. As educators, we are central in changing the present by teaching about the past.

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