Ontario’s history curriculum ingrains racism into schools

Public schools don’t do enough to shed light on Canadian histories of intolerance

Li explores the intersection of her experiences as an Asian Canadian and a student of Concurrent Education.
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It was only recently that I became confident in my ability to write an article like this one. Studying the humanities at a university focused on liberal arts, I’m lucky enough to have countless opportunities to study what forms our identities. As a ConEd student, I’m doubly fortunate: I get to study how to shape educational practices themselves.

To many, studying the humanities is seen as pretentious, a waste of time and dollars, or deemed less practical than studying business or engineering. I believe it’s worth every penny.

That’s because reviewing history, culture, literature, and their intersections in my classes has given me a vocabulary that allows me to define and articulate sources of racism, which shadows over most of what I do.

Though I was born and raised in Canada, I’ve often felt deep racial prejudice. That might surprise some people. After all, just like white Canadians, I’ve bought into the mythos of tolerance and kindness that surrounds our national identity. 

Among the causes of this perception is the way we teach young people. While courses like history and their accompanying textbooks often start conversations about the acknowledgement of racism, they don’t go much deeper than that. 

You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who disagrees that Canada has played a part in the repression of people of colour, but despite this, many Canadians still dole out microaggressions every day. 

That’s what’s at the core of the damage caused by the myth of Canadian politeness. Under that cover, racial minorities are simultaneously hurt by racialized divides and comments, and yet are unable to shed light on them. 

Subtle discrimination is insidious in that way. It’s quiet enough to avoid the “racism” label, which means it also saves the perpetrator from being socially acknowledged or held accountable for their prejudiced behaviour. 

Today, if someone calls you a racist slur, you can report it to your school’s administration and be reasonably sure they’ll condemn the interaction and take action against it. The trauma remains, but at least others acknowledge and affirm that it’s wrong.

Unlike this overt prejudice, microaggressions slip past social standards and leave victims wondering if they’re just being too sensitive. A childhood of being told I didn’t have the “look” for ballet or a role in a play caused me to hate my Chinese features, yet nobody saw these statements as racially motivated. 

Sometimes, it looked like ballet instructors telling me I was “too short” to dance seriously while my five-foot-tall Russian classmate got fitted for pointe shoes next to me. Other times, it looked like play directors saying I couldn’t play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz because a wig on me wouldn’t be “convincing.” 

I felt the message these excuses were hiding: I was too Chinese for these coveted roles. 

In my view, Canadian multiculturalism boils down to the idea that while many cultures can exist, they can’t spill into dominant white practices. There are still people in our nation who believe people of colour don’t belong, whether they articulate it or not. 

Perhaps due to my background in education, I believe that the blame for this view, at least in Ontario, lies within the public school system. While it appears to advocate for racial equality, its curricula teaches otherwise.

Science courses focus on the achievements of Eurocentric thinkers. Literature courses elevate the traditional white canon. Perhaps the worst of all, Canadian history classes almost entirely exclude conversations about Canadians of colour. 

History courses build national consciousness of our past. The majority of students passing through those classrooms will end their history studies there, leaving just a fuzzy outline of our nation’s past. 

The curriculum neglects to mention our genocide of Indigenous people, the fates of Chinese workers who built the Canadian Pacific Railway, support for slavery, and other hardships faced by people of colour. As a result, Ontario students are left with the sense that only blameless white people had a role building Canada. 

History ties people to their land. It gives them a claim to be there. Erasing the longstanding presence of ethnic minorities in Canada delegitimizes our Canadian identities and allows people to think of us as interlopers in their society. 

Without any of these ugly aspects of history being taught, it’s no wonder what I call ‘polite racism’ flourishes in our country.

The implicit lesson our history curriculum teaches is that our nation has always been tolerant, while implicitly affirming that only white people can claim legitimate heritage. It breeds the most dangerous type of intolerant people: those who still believe themselves accepting in every way. 

The only way I’ve found to escape this thought trap is through critical thinking. It gives me comfort to analyze accepted institutions and examine historical concepts to find the reasons behind social norms today. I’d encourage you to apply these concepts to yourself and your interactions with Canadianness. 

Beyond our personal worldviews, it’s important for students and young people to advocate for changes to the history curriculum that acknowledge in depth the hardships faced by racial minorities in Canada. As future leaders, we should start by encouraging discussion of how a history of intolerance enables systemic discrimination today.

We need to make sure students that come after us are able to identify with how their history books define ‘Canadian’, or we risk losing the appreciation of multiculturalism that forms our national identity.  

Wendy Li is a third-year Concurrent Education student.

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