A Canadian senator says a report released last week by the United Nations on anti-black racism in Canada validates the experience of African Nova Scotians.
The report was critical of Nova Scotia’s education system, saying the inequities between African Nova Scotian students and other Nova Scotian students remains unchanged decades after integration. And it called the socioeconomic conditions of black communities in the province “deplorable.”
Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard told Global News the report’s authors “captured the essence of the anti-black racism that we see here in Nova Scotia and in Canada.”
The UN report was presented by the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent and is based on information gathered on a visit to Canada in October 2016. The group visited Halifax, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
“It literally validates work that I’ve been engaged in probably for the past 35-40 years,” Bernard said.
Prior to her appointment to the senate last year, Bernard was a social work professor at Dalhousie University, where she still holds a position. Her research focuses on diversity, racism and inequality.
“We’re still seeing these systemic inequities in education, we’re missing the mark,” she said, pointing to Canada’s history of slavery, school segregation and marginalization as root causes of today’s racism.
She said racism is becoming “even more subtle” today — which makes it easier for other people to look past it. But she said its “deeply entrenched” in Nova Scotia’s institutions.
“Unconscious bias” is one way systemic racism persists today, she said. For example, people may be treated differently based on their name and the community they’re from.
In the education system, Bernard said that “unconscious bias” becomes apparent in how different students are disciplined.
“The use of the N-word” is one example that Bernard said she’s heard repeatedly. “A black child may be taunted with the N-word and this may happen repeatedly. And then one day that black child gets really angry and just decides to fight back. They don’t fight back with words, they fight back with their fists.
“They get into trouble for fighting with their fists, meanwhile the language, the negative stereotyping and the name calling goes unrecognized and therefore unpunished.”
That example of inequality rings true for long-time school teacher Susan Glasgow. Now retired, she has recently worked at the NSCC and still tutors students.
“In my experience I’ve seen black students … being more harshly disciplined,” Glasgow said.
She said the disproportionate numbers of black students on individual program plans (IPP) is another example of systemic racism. Especially because while students on those plans can graduate, they often don’t have the credits needed to go on to post-secondary education.
A 2016 provincial report found African Nova Scotian students who self-identified were 1.5 times more likely to be on an IPP in at least one subject than non-African Nova Scotian students.
It also found that for African Nova Scotian students, only 66 per cent of the IPPs reviewed were “appropriate” for the student. That rate is well below the average rate of 82 per cent.
Glasgow said inequalities in the school system persist at a “very alarming rate.”
“Our system has not kept up, with or doesn’t care to keep up with, the difficulty that is facing our black students,” Glasgow said.
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Education Minister Zach Churchill called the UN report “troubling and of serious consequence to a lot of people.”
He said the department has tried to make the curriculum more diverse but the report points to much more work ahead.
“In order for us to achieve what we need to in the education system, to be the great equalizer for all students and Nova Scotians, we’ve got to keep doing a better job.”
The education department already has things in place that make responding to the report easier, Bernard said. The Council on African Canadian Education, the Delmore Buddy Daye Learning Institute, and the department’s African Canadian services division are all organizations that the government can lean on.
But she said the province needs to make sure they’re properly resourced.
To start tackling unconscious bias, Bernard said educators need more training and a “critical mass” of Nova Scotians need to have a better understanding of the African Nova Scotian experience in the province. She said that also means the government needs to do more research and data collection.
Despite the report’s critical findings, Bernard said she sees “potential and opportunities” for African Nova Scotians. And she’s “more hopeful since the report came out.”
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