Canada is a proudly multicultural nation. But Annette Henry, a UBC professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education, says Canadian black scholars have been overlooked for far too long. As the organizer of Race Literacies, a UBC series of forums with Canadian black scholars, she says we all benefit from a diversity of voices and experiences.
What kind of attention is given to Canadian black scholars?
There is a black Canadian intellectual tradition, but it hasn’t really had a sustainable place in any field that one could call “Canadian scholarship”. The Canadian narrative does not include all groups. Canadian public school teaches with an inherently European narrative, and that determines what students learn, what they can and cannot know and whether they are even interested in what they learn. So, the question points right back to school and the dominant narrative.
Tim Stanley, a UBC graduate and professor of History at the University of Ottawa, talks about how this “grand narrative” makes it difficult for non-Europeans to feel included. A country’s history is told from the point of view of the dominant group. For example, I came to Canada as a nine-year-old, and I never had any school lessons about indigenous people, let alone the opportunity to understand the world from their points of view or from informed perspectives.
This question of the dominant narrative really struck me the other day with the recent niqab controversy before the federal election. We did hear from Zunera Ishaq who fought legally to wear the niqab during the citizenship oath, but how many other voices of women who wear the niqab were prominent? We mostly heard from other people discussing the issue in the media.
What important contributions do Canadian black scholars make?
Broadly speaking, they bring new and different ways of looking at things, and they raise new and different questions. For example, in the summer I read Rosemary Brown’s autobiography, Being Brown—she was a B.C. New Democrat MLA and the first black woman to run at the federal level of any political party in Canada. I got a picture of Vancouver, and being a black woman in Vancouver from her book that probably most people wouldn’t recognize or have experienced.
People like Canadian award-winning poet and novelist, Dionne Brand, cultural critic Rinaldo Walcott, director of the University of Toronto’s Women & Gender Studies Institute and Malinda Smith, political scientist at the University of Alberta, and former Vice-President of Equity for the Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences will be part of the Race Literacies series of lectures. Such voices change the conversation. I am grateful to the Equity and Inclusion Office at UBC for funding this speakers series. I am also grateful to SFU who partnered with us with the first forum on November 12.
How can Canadian black scholars gain more attention?
We’ll just keep doing our work. However, people who are in positions of power or in positions to be more inclusive should use that privilege. As professors, we can think about what we teach and how we teach, and who we put on our course outlines and in our curricula.
If universities are committed to student learning, an outstanding research environment, intercultural understanding and diversity and equity, then they should make an effort to include the voices of racialized scholars. They should also look at their hiring practices. For example, to the best of my knowledge, I’m the only black female full professor on a campus of 4,700 faculty! Again, all of these affect student learning and providing our students with an excellent education.
What unique perspective can Canadian black scholars provide?
There are many versions of every story. It’s really important that we don’t just have one version of what it is to be Canadian. Blacks have been here since the 1600s. People believe that slavery didn’t exist in Canada, and it did. There are all kinds of people doing interesting work in many disciplines.
I think many Canadians are afraid to talk about race. They’re afraid of saying the wrong thing or they’re afraid they don’t know enough. We need to learn to be literate in issues of race and be more articulate and comfortable enough to carry on a conversation and ask questions.
The first of four Race Literacies forums takes place November 12. Click here for more information.