This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.
One day last fall, Markiel Simpson’s little sister told him about an incident he recognized as her first bitter bite of racism: A white classmate had singled her out – the only Black girl in their Grade 3 class – for having “poo-poo brown skin.”
Complaining to her teacher just yielded platitudes about kids saying the darnedest things, so Mr. Simpson began an adult conversation with his sister that is common among Black Canadian families. He told her that ignorance of this sort will be a constant for her because some people won’t be able to see past the melanin in her skin.
“Kids don’t really have an understanding of race – it’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon, it’s theoretical – so explaining that is difficult at the beginning,” said Mr. Simpson, a 26-year-old who grew up and still lives on Vancouver’s eastside.
Immediately after the chat with his sister, he was frustrated with himself. Why was he normalizing this casual racism instead of doing his best to dynamite it? In his own public K-12 education, the only Black history taught was centred on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Underground Railroad leading to Nova Scotia. B.C. had no provincial Black History Month curriculum (and still doesn’t) and he never learned anything about the long and vibrant presence of British Columbians of African descent.
If all children were taught more about how Black people shaped their province, he reasoned, they might be less likely to spread hate at school and beyond. That thought sparked a campaign for change on Canada’s West Coast that is being mirrored in provinces across the country by other young Black people pressuring their governments to begin offering children a more complete view of the past.
“We have leaders in positions of power, whether they be elected or not, who don’t even believe systemic racism exists, so what that tells us about our education experience is that it has failed,” said Mr. Simpson, who singled out one piece of B.C.'s Black history that really resonated with him: how the first dentist licensed in the province was William Allen Jones, a Black man.
“We have so many positive things about Black and Indigenous people in this country that are worth celebrating and when we don’t celebrate those things then we do our whole country a disservice – but we also put people from those groups in more vulnerable situations.”
Last December, Mr. Simpson, who studied political science and philosophy at Capilano University, began researching Black academics and activists already speaking up about the past achievements of Black settlers in B.C.
In between shifts mowing grass for the parks department in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, he started e-mailing these prominent community members asking them to help craft a plan for the Black community to lobby the province to include B.C.'s Black history in its curriculum.
In February, Mr. Simpson met with a small group for a brainstorming and networking session. The meeting jumpstarted a grassroots campaign that included a provincewide petition calling on the government to investigate the roots of anti-Black racism in the school system and add B.C.'s Black history to the provincial curriculum.
Since then, approximately 4,600 people have signed the petition, and Mr. Simpson and other members of the group have participated in an anti-racism roundtable with the B.C. Ministry of Education, with more discussions planned to help develop the new curriculum.
At the end of October, Mr. Simpson and his group’s efforts got a big boost from the BC School Trustees Association, which voted unanimously for a motion at its provincial council meeting to “take immediate action” to incorporate Canadian Black history into the K-12 curriculum next school year. The motion, approved by representatives from all 60 public-school districts across B.C., also calls for this curriculum to be developed in concert with Black-led organizations.
Jennifer Reddy, a Vancouver School Board trustee, said it is essential that groups like the B.C. Community Alliance, an anti-Black racism non-profit organization, have a hand in crafting any new curriculum rather “than having someone at a desk designing something from scratch.”
Ms. Reddy, who grew up in the Kootenays in a South Asian Fijian household, said she was shocked when she learned James Douglas, the first governor of the colony of B.C., was born in the South American region now known as Guyana to a mother of African descent.
Rob Fleming, the education minister who was recently re-elected, agrees this shift to teach students about Black people in the province is much needed, especially amid the global racial reckoning sparked this spring when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Mr. Fleming praised Mr. Simpson as a persuasive and competent community organizer who is one of the key actors helping the province put its rich Black history “on much better display."
“His passion is what’s most impressive about him when you immediately get to know him and meet with him,” said Mr. Fleming, who finds it remarkable that John Deas, a free Black man from South Carolina, started B.C.'s first commercial salmon cannery on the banks of the Fraser River in 1871. Changing the curriculum will take months of consultation and further work, Mr. Fleming said, but he expects an expanded scope of programming for students this upcoming February to celebrate Black History Month.
Mr. Simpson, who also began volunteering last year with the provincial New Democrats as co-director of their youth wing’s diversity initiatives, recalls many instances where this erasure has shaken his sense of belonging in the country of his birth, such as when he first found out Canadian sprinter Harry Jerome, the former fastest man on earth, was Black.
“I was proud, but I was also kind of embarrassed [because] I don’t know my own history,” he said. “Talking about race shouldn’t necessarily lead to conflict, or violence or anger, it should be a welcome discussion, but since we’ve avoided that discussion for so long we’ve really become entrenched in our myths and what we’ve learned.”
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