African Heritage Month: The Yearly Challenge

Marva Major

In February, many schools plan event filled Black History Month activities focused on showcasing the cultural and historical contributions of people of African descent within Canada and the world. Posters featuring prominent leaders, artifacts and timelines of historical facts fill the hallways and school libraries. Speakers and performers are brought in for assemblies and students are introduced to individuals and cultural experiences that are often not a part of their everyday realities. During my first four years of teaching, I organized similar activities, but I often felt something was missing.

In 1994,1 surveyed grade eight students on what they had experienced and learned during Black History Month over the years. Some of the responses were:

  • they enjoyed the activities as they were a break away from “real” school;
  • they learned about Black sports figures and entertainers; and • they learned that Black people escaped from slavery in the United States and fled to Canada.

My objectives for doing Black History were:

  • to acknowledge the roles played by people of African descent to the growth and development of Canadian culture and society; and
  • to affirm African Canadian students and support them in feeling more connected, represented and validated within the curriculum.

It was clear from the responses that students were constructing a limited knowledge base and I questioned whether I was meeting my objectives. If these activities were limited in scope, not connected to the students’ life experiences and not viewed as “real” school work, then I needed to rethink what I was doing.

Over the last six years in my role as a curriculum resource teacher, I noticed that the questions and concerns raised by teachers were similar to my own. They were also struggling with ideas of how to deepen the experiences and learning for their students and themselves. In this article I have included the most frequently asked questions from colleagues and my own reflections and suggestions on how to support teachers in dealing with this yearly challenge of African Heritage Month.

Q: Should we still be doing African Heritage Month considering the difficulties we face in covering our content rich curriculum?

A: Yes. Marginalized histories of communities within Canada should be acknowledged and celebrated as these stories are part of the fabric of Canadian history and identity Students of all backgrounds need to understand the social forces that have shaped, and continue to shape, Canadian communities. They need to hear the voices of diverse Canadians and develop a more balanced understanding of the interactions between various groups of Canadians and how these experiences have contributed to Canada’s growth and development.

Interesting facts about the contributions and achievements of people of African descent taught in isolation, however, do not provide students with a connected and more complete understanding of Canadian history. Students need to understand that African Canadian communities are not new to Canada. They can be traced to the early 1600s, with the explorations of Mathieu da Costa, a free man who served as an interpreter between the Mi’kmaq people and Samuel de Champlain.

As early as the 1700s, Black United Empire Loyalists settled in the Maritimes and Ontario. In the 1800s, communities were established in Chatham, Windsor and Buxton. In the 1800s also, people of African descent began settling in Western Canada. Like other immigrants at that time, they came to prospect for gold and seek a new life.

Despite the challenges they faced in adapting to their new homes, these Canadian pioneers persevered and helped to shape Canada’s cultural and social fabric. Sharing these stories of perseverance, pioneering spirits and commitment to nation building offers students a more connected and complete picture of our Canadian reality.

Q: What should we be calling the month these days? The terms keep changing.

A: Over the last few years there have been on-going discussions relating to whether ‘Black History’ or ‘African Heritage’ is the more appropriate term. ‘African Heritage Month’ has evolved from ‘Negro History Week’ in 1926, when it was first proposed by Carter Woodson, an African-American historian, to ‘Black History Month’ in 1976. These days, in various African-Canadian and African- American communities, the term ‘African Heritage’ is being used. The changing terminology reflects not only the changing times and socio-historical contexts, but also a broadened understanding of our varied and complex identities as people of African descent.

Our students of African descent have roots in Canada and across the globe. They define themselves and are socially constructed according to their cultural, faith, racial, sexual, linguistic and/or socio-economic identities. Therefore using a socially constructed identifier such as “Black” in today’s context is somewhat limiting and may be viewed as less inclusive. It may certainly be an important part of their identity, but depending on the individual and their life experiences, other social factors may have greater implications in their lives. For example, for some students, faith and culture play a greater role than “race” in terms of how they view themselves, how they are viewed by society and how they negotiate social situations.

Heritage is connected to familial roots and geographical descent and incorporates racial identity, culture, language, faith and ethnicity. Using the term African Heritage supports this thinking and takes into account the multiplicity of identities that are central to the lives of African- Canadian students.

Teachers can help students deconstruct bias and challenge stereotypes by pointing out the diversity that exists within the communities of people of African descent. Integrating classroom activities that examine how factors such as language, religion, race, gender, class and/or culture can play a significant role in shaping the identity, history and experiences of the individuals being studied helps students:

  • understand that the experiences and perspectives of individuals from the same racial or ethnocultural background are not necessarily the same;
  • understand the need to examine issues from a variety of perspectives; and
  • listen and appreciate diverse opinions before making judgments or assumptions.

Q: February is such a busy month, how can I do all of these activities when I have to focus on my curriculum?

A: Integrate African Heritage all year round and make it an integral part of the curriculum rather than trying to squeeze in a number of activities in the shortest month of the year. Start small and each year continue to build your own knowledge and resource capacity. The more connected activities reflecting African heritage are to the curriculum, the deeper the learning will be. If speakers or assemblies are held to commemorate ‘African Heritage Month,’ these should be related to themes that are being covered in the classroom.

When trying to make the curriculum more inclusive of the experiences, perspectives and values of peoples of African descent, consider these questions:

  • What themes are you covering this term? What books, short stories, articles, poetry, videos etc. can you access to support themes that include the experiences of people of African descent?
  • When studying Canadian authors, do you include writers from racial and/or ethnocultural minority backgrounds? Have you asked your teacher-librarian for lists of picture books and novels reflecting the lives and experiences of people of African descent? Will you review these materials prior to beginning your unit of study? Have you visited the internet sites listed at the end of this article?
  • During school wide celebrations such as Remembrance Day, do you include the experiences of African Canadians who participated in World War I and World War II?

Integrating African Heritage into the curriculum

There is a growing wealth of resource materials teachers can use to support mandatory themes in the social studies curriculum. Resources listed at the end of this article provide excellent information regarding African Canadians who have contributed to the growth and development of Canada and their connections with other communities within Canadian society. Information from these resources can very easily be integrated into units. Here is an example for the grade three strand on Pioneer Life. Pioneers of European background have been well documented. However, the experiences and perspectives of other pioneering communities in Upper Canada have been excluded or treated superficially. Within the pioneer unit, teachers can include the often neglected stories of such communities, examine their interactions and the commonalties and differences in their experiences.

In addition, teachers can:

  • address the history, values and power relationships between dominant and minority communities;
  • provide information regarding the obstacles these communities faced and how they overcame them. For example, each group faced unique challenges setting up their pioneering communities. Their accomplishments were often a result of the level of support received, and constraints faced by the community. Irish settlers and White Loyalists were provided with acres of land, whereas Black Loyalists either received no land, or received land of poor quality. This impacted on settlement patterns and the rates at which communities were established; and
  • support students in viewing the complexities of life experiences, rather than only the music, food and crafts of specific communities.

Students should know that people of African descent have made contributions in a variety of fields. Multicultural Math, Science, Technology Package , published by Addison Wesley, for example, includes a number of activities for junior, intermediate and secondary students highlighting scientists from a variety of racial and ethnocultural backgrounds.

Q: Slavery and racism are a part of history, and don’t really impact on what is going on in today’s society. Also, I don’t want my students feeling uncomfortable when they are learning about these issues. We should be focusing instead on racial harmony and celebrating diversity.

A: Some teachers are concerned about how best to deal with racism and slavery in relation to teaching Black History. Concerns include the possibility that students of African descent will feel a sense of shame and/or anger; students who are racialized white may feel guilty at the actions of their ancestors; and teachers’ feelings of inadequacy due to their lack of background knowledge and/or personal discomfort with these issues.

Slavery and racism are emotionally challenging issues. However, to focus exclusively on these aspects, or to ignore them, is both inadequate and problematic. It is important to avoid idealizing people of African descent, representing them as victims and/or demonizing people of European descent. Slavery and racism should be put in their proper context. Students need to understand the social conditions during periods of Black migration; the interactions between communities of African and European descent; the ways in which these relationships developed and changed over time; and the various forms of resistance that took place.

Learning about slavery and racism are important to developing a more complete and realistic picture of Canadian history. During a workshop on teaching an inclusive curriculum, I surveyed participants. Few knew about the history of slavery and racial segregation in Canada. Most were never taught about it and it wasn’t in the history books when they were growing up. Many, however, were aware of the Underground Railroad narrative where thousands of enslaved people of African descent escaped to what they presumed to be an oasis of tolerance and freedom in Canada.

The reality these individuals faced in Canada however, was somewhat different. The experiences of Black Loyalists comes to mind. As well, in the mid 1800s, early settlers to Upper Canada and British Columbia faced great challenges from government legislation and local community members. They were forced to live restricted and segregated lives. The Common Schools Act of 1850, for example, legalized segregation in education in Ontario and heralded the establishment of separate schools for students of African descent. This legislation lasted de facto until 1964, when the last segregated school was closed.

A final example is related to Canada’s wartime experience. When World War I broke out, many men flocked to the recruiting stations. African Canadian men who tried to sign up were told that this was a “white man’s war;” they were not needed. Believing that they should be accorded the same rights as European Canadians, African Canadians demanded equality. So began a series of communications between the African Canadian community and the federal government. The documents reflecting this dialogue are in the Public Archives in Ottawa, as well as in the book The Black Battalion (Ruck, 1987). In April 1916, African Canadians won their case and an all Black battalion was formed.

Teachers who are not exposed to more complete stories of people of African descent are likely to replicate their own learning experiences and share their limited knowledge with students. Yet the stories of African Canadians must be understood as central within the sweep of Canadian history, not marginalized, barely visible anecdotes, as happens too often today.

Teachers must create classroom environments where students can listen to different perspectives and examine and challenge their views and the views of others without feeling threatened or victimized. Prior to beginning a unit of study, establish a context for dealing with the hard social issues of slavery and racism. Acknowledge the emotional challenges in dealing with these issues, the role slavery and racism have played historically, as well as how these issues have affected Canadian society.

Throughout the unit, share background information regarding the social attitudes and conditions of the time and how these shaped the actions of citizens and the government.

Use poetry, diaries and literature to deepen students’ understanding. Bring history alive by asking students to make connections with historical situations and present day events. Talk with them about how social attitudes have changed over time, and the role that African Canadian communities have played on their own, and in concert discriminatory laws. Examine the significance of these resistances and ways in which these struggles have affected the tradition of human rights within Canada and have led to changes in government policies related to civil rights and liberties. An excellent example of this is the story of Chloe Cooley. In 1793, she was an enslaved young woman from Queenston who was brutally beaten by the man who owned her, transported against her will and sold in Niagara. As an enslaved person under existing laws she was viewed as property with few rights; there was little likelihood her owner would be prosecuted. News of her mistreatment reached the ears of John Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. Following lobbying from abolitionists, Simcoe passed An Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves and Limit the Term of Enforced Servitude Within This Province . Although this Act was limited in scope and was focused primarily at preventing the further importation of enslaved persons to Upper Canada, it was one of the earliest pieces of anti-discrimination legislation in Canada.

Our students need to hear these stories of alliances between communities, learn about strategies for change and strive for new sources of hope for the future. In so doing, they will become more committed to creating a more inclusive, harmonious society where racism and discrimination are not tolerated under any conditions. To deepen our students’ experiences and our own in relation to African Heritage Month, we must broaden our current vision of Canadian history to one which is balanced, one that includes positive and negative stories, and one which centralizes the experiences of African Canadians within the national story. We must allow ourselves and our students to grapple with challenging issues like bias, stereotyping and racism, examine the intersections between these and other forms of oppression, such as classism, sexism and heterosexism and our roles in maintaining or challenging these issues.

Does teaching African Heritage require multiple activities and ideas for the shortest month of the year? No. It means rethinking what we’re doing and charting a path which is more inclusive and responsive to the needs of our students.

Marva Major has served as a Curriculum Resource Teacher with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board for six years. She has recently been appointed as Vice Principal of Robert Bateman Public School, Ottawa.


Alexander, Ken and Avis Glaze. Towards Freedom: The African Experience . Toronto. Umbrella Press. 1996.
Bristow. Peggy (ed.) We’re Rooted Here and You Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History. Toronto . University of Toronto Press. 1994.
Ffrench, Robert. Out of the Past, Into the Future . Dartmouth, N.S. Pride Communications. 1994.
Hill, Daniel. The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada . Toronto. Stoddard Publishing. 1992.
Henry, Frances et al. The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society . Toronto. Harcourt, Brace & Co. Canada Ltd.1995.
Hill, Lawrence. Trials and Triumphs: The Story of African Canadians. Toronto. Umbrella Press. 1993.
Holas, W.P. Black Pioneer Calendar . Ottawa. Pan-African Publications. Published annually. $10.00.
Holas, W. P. Millenium Minds - Ten Black Canadians - The Story of Blacks in Canada . Ottawa. Pan African Publications. 2000.
Multicultural Math, Science, Technology Package . Toronto. Addison Wesley. 1994.
Ruck, Calvin. The Black Battalion (1916-1920) Canada's Best Kept Secret. Halifax, N.S. Nimbus Publications. 1987.
Sadlier, Rosemary. Leading the Way: Black Women in Canada . Toronto. Umbrella Press. 1994.
Shepard, R. Bruce. Deemed Unsuitable . Toronto. Umbrella Press. 1997.
Canadians in the Global Community - War Peace and Security . Toronto. Prentice Hall. 1997.


Paths of Glory: www.pathsofglory.com * Some Missing Pages: www.qesn.meg/gouv.ca.ca/mpages * Ontario Black History Online: www.collections.ic.gc.ca/obho