Students across the country are being provided with a primer on black history in Canada just in time for Black History Month.
The Historica-Dominion Institute is behind the Black History in Canada Education Guide, which has been shipped to more than 3,000 high schools. The institute is the country’s largest charitable organization dedicated to Canadian history, identity and citizenship.
Jeremy Diamond, the institute’s director of development and programs, said the idea stemmed from the success they had creating a similar campaign around Paul Gross’s film Passchendaele a couple of years ago.
Diamond said they found young people were starved for primary sources and popular culture references to help them learn about Canadian history.
They encouraged the filmmakers to work with them on a public education campaign to help drive youngsters to the movies to learn more about the country’s history and the First World War.
“What we wanted to do with this guide in a similar vein is to use a popular book, like The Book of Negroes, as a foray into learning about the experience of black history in Canada,” Diamond said in an interview.
He said the guide focuses on the story of black Canadians and black history in Canada over 400 years, while drawing on Lawrence Hill’s award-winning novel as an example of the black Canadian experience in the 19th century.
The guide also includes a message from the author.
The Book of Negroes tells the story of an 11-year-old girl who is abducted from her village in West Africa and enslaved in North Carolina.
She forges her way to freedom years later, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the Book of Negroes, a record of some 3,000 black Loyalists who left the U.S. to resettle in Nova Scotia.
Diamond said they use different subjects or themes such as slavery and human rights which they’re able to draw from the book to explore the larger perspective of black history in Canada.
“We often think of the United States, we often think of the Civil War and slavery, but we have our own story here in Canada when it comes to black settlement,” he said. “It’s talked about in the book, and we expand on that as part of the guide to be used in the classroom.”
The guide is supplemented with a website, www.blackhistorycanada.ca that has interactive learning tools and online resources. The guide is also accessible through the site.
“It really makes history come alive for young people because they can read a story, learn about the events, accomplishments and figures in black Canadian history, and then use the guide in their classrooms as part of a learning exercise with teachers.”
It also features a timeline of key events, from the arrival in 1605 of Mathieu Da Costa, a translator for Samuel de Champlain thought to be the first black person on Canadian soil, to Michaelle Jean becoming the country’s first black governor general in 2005.
Contemporary culture and modern-day figures are also highlighted, including the late jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, musician K’naan, filmmaker Clement Virgo, author Austin Clarke and Toronto Argonauts vice-chair and retired player Mike (Pinball) Clemons.
“Every day history’s being written, so to look at a long period of time or a narrative around black history you can’t end in, say, the 1860s, or in the turn of the 20th century,” Diamond said.
“We need to continue to look at how black Canadians are continuing to make an impact in Canada, the same way as they were 400 years ago.”