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Black-Canadian history not found in liberal studies curriculum

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By Lidia Abraha

For Black students at Ryerson, learning about their history through their curriculum may yield disappointing results. As of right now, Ryerson offers three courses on African studies and eight courses on Caribbean studies in both the upper and lower liberal studies table. However, there are no courses offered on African-Canadian history.

“You can take a French Revolution course from 1801-1812 and that’s an entire semester, but if you look at what courses are offered for Black people… and the way in which we are privileging the curriculum for Black bodies is very expansive. It’s not specific, it’s a generalization,” said Susanne Nyaga, the first Black woman president of the RSU.

“Provide us with more courses where we can select to learn about that history the same way white people can access learning about their history,” said Nyaga.

Nyaga’s educational experience lacked classes on Black or African culture. She spoke of her experience taking the Modern Africa history course, which, she said in her opinion, should’ve been titled “Postcolonial Africa.” Titles aside, the process for designing courses is much more complicated, especially for liberal studies.

Liberals are a way for students in different programs to learn more about topics that aren’t covered in their major’s department. These topics range from history, sociology, English, as well as different languages like Spanish or Arabic. All Ryerson students are required to complete at least one liberal studies course before they graduate.

Proposals for new liberal studies courses are made by faculty in each department. Proposals are then reviewed by the Liberal Studies Curriculum Committee, a subcommittee in the Liberals Studies Council. Then, they make their recommendations to the Academic Standards Committee (ASC). Once the ASC reviews the proposal, they report to the Senate for final approval. All committees and councils involved in the process include faculty and student representatives.


“Provide us with more courses where we can select to learn about that history the same way white people can access learning about their history”


Before the implementation of Policy 2—the curriculum structure of all Ryerson undergraduate degree programs—in December 2017, the Liberal Studies Council supervised the development of all liberal studies courses. The council was chaired by the Faculty of Arts, but now it has been separated entirely. This change was an effort to centralize the design of courses and allow room for all departments to participate in the process.

Dr. Kathleen Kellett-Betsos, associate dean of the Faculty of Arts, supervises the development of liberal studies courses. Kellett-Betsos said the reason for the lack of Black-Canadian curriculum is because no proposals have been put forward by departments.

If you really want to have that happen, then you might actually want to say it to your department … Let people know that this is an area that we’d like [to learn about],” said Kellett-Betsos.

Faculty must make the initial inquiry to design a course on Black Canadian studies. This can be difficult at Ryerson, where the most recent statistics from 2013-2014 show the majority of faculty members who self identified on the Diversity Self ID were not visible minorities or racialized people. Kellett-Betsos said that the department is less likely to propose a course if the chair deems no one is qualified to teach it, and that despite the fact that departments can bring guest professors to teach a specific course, there must be a demand for it.

Mark Campbell, a professor in the RTA School of Media, is an expert in Black Canadian culture and Canadian cultural industries. As an instructor and person of colour, he finds ways to incorporate the Black-Canadian experience in his curriculum through guest lectures and studying the work of Black-Canadians in media.

“If there are Black students at Ryerson that are hungry to see themselves represented in the curriculum, [then students should look for] different ways to find it within the courses,” said Campbell. “If students want [it] then they have to keep encouraging it and recommending these things be added to the courses they’re taking.”

“All categories of people of colour are underemployed as professors and in administration. So what happens then, is most white professors are actually teaching in some dimension of whiteness,” said Dr. Charmaine Nelson, a professor at McGill University who now teaches Canadian Studies at Harvard University.

Nelson has created an online database for African-Canadian research which contains academic units, archives, teaching tools, and links to community organizations.

Nelson explained the lacking infrastructure for Black Canadian studies has a trickle-down effect on how Black Canadians are perceived in society. She said this is why most Canadians are unaware of Canada’s imperial history. To her, the patterns of colonization in Canada are comparable to the U.S., the difference being the abundance in resources for education.

In the U.S. there are hundreds of undergraduate degree programs in African American studies. They also have nearly 20 masters programs concentrated in African American studies, and seven PhD programs. There are nearly 100 historically Black universities across the country.

Nelson said this allows Canadians to grow unaware of Canada’s history of racism, further reinstating the culture of oppression for Black people.

“The average Canadian, especially the average white Canadian, will say that slavery didn’t happen here,” said Nelson. “They have erased 250 years of history, so why would we have [historically Black universities] if we’ve never had racism, and why do we need affirmative action if there’s no racism?”


“Give Black people the room … It’s a form of colonization when you have white people controlling our narratives”


Student leaders like Shaquille Bulhi, an organizer at the Racialized Students’ Collective (RSC) at Ryerson, said that lack of Black professors can create a toxic environment in the classrooms. “There are Black folks in the room and white women teaching, and [their] justification of teaching African American studies is because [they] lived in Harlem for six years. It’s just nasty,” said Bulhi.

Bulhi said there are always students coming to the office of the RSC to decompress their experience in classrooms. According to Bulhi, complaints range from microaggressions or uttering racial slurs by students and professors.

“The way [classes are] taught sometimes is so callous, and it doesn’t have any sort of care for the fact that there are Black people in the room … You should be taking all of the precaution that you need to take to teach this justly and fair.”

According to Bulhi, the need for Black professors within these spaces should be a priority for the administration. “Give Black people the room, and if you don’t have any, then we should be sponsoring and putting money toward having Black people teach their own history. It’s a form of colonization when you have white people controlling our narratives,” said Bulhi.

Where students in universities across Canada lack access to learning about African-Canadian history, some could argue Ryerson is missing it altogether. The University of Toronto has a Black Canadian Studies resource page that directs you to websites, news publications, periodical papers that discuss the African-Canadian experience. York University offers a minor in Anti-racism research and African studies. In 2016, the University of Dalhousie implemented an interdisciplinary minor in Black and African Diaspora. While Ryerson has created enough courses to implement a Caribbean studies minor, including a course on Racism and Caribbean Peoples in Canada, there are no courses explicitly focusing on Black-Canadian history.

In order to increase visibility of Blackness in a curriculum, Nelson said it starts with who’s writing the job description for new professors.

“Is there room in that to expect or demand that the person has a knowledge of Black Canada, or the Black diaspora of Africa?” said Nelson. “Students don’t see this part … and they have all of their demands, but they don’t necessarily align with the demands of the person who hired that professor.”

Nelson explained that by understanding the reality of our history, we could eliminate the systemic oppression of Black people in Canada, even though the lack of education is the very reason their voices won’t be heard in federal, provincial, and municipal governments.

“How do you get heard in a nation where supposedly [their] history never transpired,” said Nelson. “This is the knock-down effect of not having enough Indigenous history or Black Canadian history institutionalized. The general public [becomes] ignorant. Ignorant of the history and the people who have been oppressed.”

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