In 1608, Mathieu Da Costa — an interpreter for Samuel de Champlain’s 1605 excursion — became the first Black man to set foot on the landmass known today as Canada. James Douglas, the first appointed Black politician in Canada, rose to the position of governor of British Columbia in 1851. In 1917, Black Canadian railway workers initiated the first Black railway union in North America, later affiliating with the American union Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Despite the fact that Black people make up 4.3 per cent of Canada’s population as of the 2021 census, no K-12 curriculum in any province in Canada mandates teachers discuss Black history. U of T does not require students to take classes about history focused on Black people in Canada or worldwide. In interviews with The Varsity, however, professors and students discussed the importance of learning these histories, calling for the university to make a concerted effort to incorporate them into curricula and possibly require courses on Black history.

What courses and programs does U of T offer on Black histories?

Bárbara Simões Daibert is a visiting professor in the Centre of Comparative Literatures who teaches CDN335 — Black Canadian Studies. In an email to The Varsity, she noted a lack of awareness of Black history within U of T. She highlighted how many Canadians don’t know that slavery existed in Canada, and the fact aroused surprise from students when she mentioned it during a lecture.

Daibert described teaching CDN335 as “exciting.” She noted that the course offers her a chance to “show [her] students the diversity of their country and the effects of African slavery in the Americas” and deconstruct “longstanding myths concerning identities.”

7.5 per cent of Torontonians identified as Black, as of the 2021 Canadian census. However, The Varsity only found two courses offered this year at UTSG that appear to focus specifically on Black Canadian history: CDN335 and HIS265 — Black Canadian History. Only 13 students are currently enrolled in HIS265, and 20 are enrolled in CDN335. U of T offers another course at the Scarborough campus — HISB22H3 F: Histories of Black Feminism Canada: From Runaway Slaves to #BlackLivesMatter — and none at UTM. 

U of T also offers the Certificate in Black Canadian Studies, which students can earn by completing a group of courses across various programs that tackle topics from systematic discrimination to forms of resistance. According to Daibert, this certificate is a “great and necessary step towards a more inclusive world.”

Currently, U of T’s African Studies Program — which includes a specialist, major, and minor — offers courses on socio-economic, cultural, environmental, and political transformations in Africa. The program aims to provide multidisciplinary perspectives on African histories, societies, and diasporas, and includes language studies.

Canada’s Black history

The experience at U of T reflects broader Canadian trends. A 2023 study commissioned by the Canadian Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization surveyed K–12 curricula across the country. It found a lack of curricula on Black Canadians, with many curricula only focusing on Black American history instead of highlighting the contributions of and specific struggles faced by Black Canadians. Some Ontarians have previously called for the province to make Black history a K–12 education requirement, noting that the focus on American history shifts focus away from Canada’s historical and continued anti-Black racism.

Some other Canadian universities — including the University of Guelph and York University — offer programs or certificates in Black Canadian studies or Black Canadian History. However, other universities, such as the University of Ottawa, lack programs in Black Canadian studies or even courses on the topic.

In March 2021, the U of T Anti-Black Racism Task Force released its report, which included 56 recommendations that aimed to confront anti-Black racism and foster Black inclusion and excellence. The report included one recommendation related to Black pedagogy, or teaching methods designed to promote equity in educational settings: that the university “enhance the number of workshops and learning circles focused on anti-racist and inclusive pedagogies” and offer workshops on anti-Black racism.

U of T accepted all 56 recommendations and tracks progress on these recommendations through its institutional commitment dashboard. The dashboard shows that the university has hired two people on term contracts to focus on anti-racist pedagogies, has developed a workshop series, and has hosted events. It has also curated resources such as the Anti-Black Racism Pedagogical Collection and is creating a repository to showcase Black leaders in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Incorporating and requiring Black histories

Ann Lopez, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and co-director of U of T’s Centre for Black Studies in Education, wrote in an email to The Varsity that U of T could both mandate specific courses on Black histories and work to integrate Black pedagogy into existing courses. “Systemic and lasting change requires intentionality. Mandating specific courses is the intentionality that is sometimes required to ensure that such knowledge that was often excluded is included,” she wrote. 

Daibert echoed this idea. “We have to have specific courses on this subject, on Black Canadian studies, simply because these studies are a very important part of what happened and still happens in this nation called Canada. On the other hand, it is necessary to include other non-white forms of knowledge, and this includes pedagogy, in our existing universities and curricula,” she wrote.

Some universities have implemented policies requiring students to take classes focused on Indigenous content before graduation. However, The Varsity could not find any examples of Canadian universities requiring courses focused on Black content.

“I would love to start by learning about Black culture,” Timothy Wang, a fourth-year mathematics student, said in an interview with The Varsity. As an international student at U of T with a Chinese background, Wang wrote that growing up, he and his friends rarely had the chance to meet people of other ethnicities. Coming to Canada for university, Wang felt that, although he had more chances to meet individuals from other backgrounds, he had little chance to learn about Black history in Canada.

“It is important for the contributions of Black Canadians to [Canada to] be embedded in courses beyond Black History Month,” wrote Lopez. When asked for comment on its incorporation of Black history in course curricula, U of T told The Varsity that community members can refer to the Certificate in Black Canadian Studies, the Anti-Black Racism Task Force dashboard, and the Scarborough Charter, which the university signed in 2021.