Hon. Jane Cordy:
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Senator Bernard’s inquiry and anti-Black racism in Canada. I would like to speak specifically about anti-Black racism as it exists within our education system. I want to thank Senator Bernard for bringing this inquiry to the floor of the Senate for debate.
In her remarks, Senator Bernard spoke about the importance of this inquiry on anti-Black racism in light of the report of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent which examined the ways in which systemic anti-Black racism persists in Canada.
I would also like to recognize, as did Senator Bernard, that other racialized groups in Canada are impacted by racism. Members of the Human Rights Committee who travelled to prisons across Canada for our study on the human rights of federal prisoners heard stories of racism within the prison system and within the justice system.
Honourable senators, unfortunately, racism exists within Canadian society, sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly. As Senator Bernard mentioned in her speech, this includes our education system.
Racism in the education system is nothing new. In 1994, the Black Learners Advisory Committee, or BLAC, released a report that pointed to systemic racism in the Nova Scotia educational system. The report presented 46 recommendations to the Government of Nova Scotia to address racism in the education system. As a direct result of the BLAC report, the African Canadian Services Branch was established to take the recommendations found in the BLAC report and work to continue to identify and implement solutions to combat institutional racism in the Nova Scotia education system. The branch operates within the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and is dedicated to building a Nova Scotia education system that is equitable, culturally responsive and a safe learning environment for all learners.
Within its mandate, the branch is tasked with advancing the achievement and well-being of African Nova Scotian learners; working collaboratively with Education and Early Education Development staff and other stakeholders to identify and eliminate barriers impacting African Nova Scotian Black learners; working collaboratively across the department and with government to consult with and provide advice regarding African Nova Scotian/Canadian education; and promoting understanding of African Nova Scotians/Canadians and their history, heritage, culture, traditions and contributions to society, recognizing their origins as African people.
The creation of the African Canadian Services Branch was an acknowledgment by the Nova Scotia government that anti-Black racism was an issue within schools which required immediate attention and long-term monitoring. It is a positive step, and there continues to be a need for improvement.
Nova Scotia is not unique in Canada. Anti-Black racism, along with other racism, exists in education jurisdictions and institutions from coast to coast to coast. Unfortunately, racism exists in all its forms in many of our institutions.
In the fall of 2016, at the invitation of the Canadian government, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent visited four Canadian cities: Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax. The purpose of the visit was to examine in detail the situation of people of African descent living in Canada and to identify any problems and to make recommendations for how these problems could be resolved. The group also identified good practices that could be replicated in other countries. The UN report focused on anti-Black racism within the criminal justice system, health services, housing, employment and education.
The working group shared their concerns regarding racism in the education system. The report stated:
The Working Group was concerned to learn about anti-Black racism and the lack of social inclusion in the education system in Canada. African Canadian students have disproportionately low educational attainment, high dropout rates, suspensions and expulsions and they are more likely than other children to be streamed into general and basic-level academic programmes, instead of advanced-level programmes. Race-based stereotypes about African Canadian students’ scholastic ability have had a devastating impact. The three primary concerns expressed were differential treatment, lack of Black and African-Canadian history and culture in the curriculum and the absence of Black teachers.
The quality of education received and the outcome of their educational experiences affects the employment and income potential of African Canadians.
Unfortunately, the UN working group’s report highlighted that the same racial discrimination that has played a major part in denying African Nova Scotians equal opportunity to education is indeed a Canada-wide issue. This inequality within the education system is mirrored in the health care system, housing and in employment. As a Black Learners Advisory Committee report stated in 1994:
Most African Canadian children are from birth trapped in a vicious cycle of societal rejection and isolation, poverty, low expectations, and low educational achievement . . .
It can be discouraging to think that little progress has been achieved over the last 25 years. Education and community advocates continue to point to the same problems in the system: Too few Black teachers, a curriculum that is not Afrocentric enough, cultural clashes between teachers and students, and poverty.
One way this systemic racism shows itself in Nova Scotia is through suspension statistics. Data collected for five of the eight school boards in Nova Scotia for the 2015-16 school year showed that Black students face out of school suspensions at a rate of 1.2 to 3 times higher than the overall representation of African Nova Scotians in the school population.
In the Halifax Regional School Board, those numbers were significantly higher. Students of African descent accounted for 22.5 per cent of the suspensions in the cases where students self-identified as being Black. Black students only represented 7.8 per cent of the school population but 22.5 per cent of the suspensions. Community advocates have rightfully described the situation in Halifax as a crisis.
Honourable senators, reports and studies only shed light on the problems of the deep-rooted prejudices that exist in our institutions. They are not the solution, but they are a starting point in providing a roadmap to an education system that should be equitable and prejudice-free.
It is a positive step for our governments to acknowledge the problems that exist, but, honourable senators, for real change to happen, governments on every level have to take seriously the recommendations in reports like the BLAC Report on Education or the recommendations of the African-Canadian Services Branch. It is understandable that marginalized segments of society are sceptical of political promises when little progress has occurred over the last 25 years.
Honourable senators, on February 1, in celebration of Black History Month, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Canada will officially recognize the UN International Decade for People of African Descent. The decade, which spans from 2015 to 2024, is an opportunity for Canada to participate with other nations to celebrate the important contributions people of African descent have made to Canada.
The hope is Canada will use this opportunity to acknowledge the challenges and systemic racism experienced by large numbers of Canadians. The goal of the UN declaration is to provide a framework for recognition, justice and development to fight racism, discrimination, and the ongoing inequalities that Canadians of African descent face. Honourable senators, let us not waste another opportunity to make needed changes.
Honourable senators, I would like to thank Senator Bernard for bringing this inquiry to the Senate, and to both her and Senator Lankin for their moving speeches. Racism is all around us in many aspects of society. For many, it goes unnoticed until we are directly confronted with it.
Unfortunately, for too many Canadians, it is a part of their daily lives each and every time they leave their home. It is important for us, not only as parliamentarians but also as Canadians, to recognize this. We must always be aware and take responsibility for our words and actions in our daily lives.
We must also refuse to turn our heads and be silent when we hear racist and hateful comments. As a society, we must recognize the systemic racism that persists in many of our institutions, and we must as a society aspire to do better.
We only succeed as a society when everyone has equal opportunities to succeed. If segments of Canadians continue to be marginalized and left behind because of systemic racism, then, honourable senators, as Canadians, we all fail.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.