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Education in Ontario

February 7, 2017 Black History Month

Education in Ontario                                                                                         

In Ontario, racial segregation was legal in public education for 114 years.

That was a result successful lobbying of government by white parents in the 19th century to keep black children out of public schools.  Superintendent Egerton Ryerson complied in 1850 when he revised the Common School Act of Ontario.  Here is that revision.

It shall be the duty of the Municipal Council of any Township, and of the Board of School Trustees of any City, Town or incorporated Village, on the application, in writing, of twelve, or more, resident heads of families, to authorize the establishment of one, or more, separate schools for Protestants, Roman Catholics, or Coloured people.

Incredibly, this revision stayed on the books until 1964.  The last segregated school in Ontario was closed in 1965 following lobbying by African Canadians. *

Although the situation is not so grim these days, Black youth in Ontario, continue to face challenges in the school system.

Research from some schools boards shows that Black students are more likely to face disciplinary practices and have higher rates of academic disengagement.  These realities aren’t only a consequence of individual choices. These issues are often perpetuated by systemic issues that create hostile learning environments for racialized students. **

To the credit of many schools, programs have been designed to address many of the issues racialized and Black students face. But these programs have done little to address systemic problems. After school programs and school initiatives have achieved progress in some communities. However, broad policies that are robust enough to produce justice are necessary.

There is no shortfall in incredible advocacy from the Black community, but long lasting institutionalized change demands that teachers and administrative staff also engage in practices that allow for all students, irrespective of race, to reach their full potential. Policies must attack the pillars of systemic oppression in schools.

Here are three areas that the Ministry of Education needs to address to achieve inclusive justice in Ontario’s education system. 

  1. Bias:

It is naïve not to believe that each of us carries our own implicit biases. Many of us consciously reject stereotypes and support anti-discrimination efforts, yet still unconsciously hold negative associations.

For teachers, this manifests in subtle ways such as lower expectations of students.  For many young Black boys and girls, their subjective experiences are in many instances, driven by the biases that many teachers have of them. In fact, a study conducted by the Peel District School Board reveals heartbreaking personal stories pointing to themes of oppression.

School boards across Ontario must mandate anti-bias training to combat these subtle, but detrimental phenomena. It is hard to justify not implementing policies requiring teachers to take anti-racist training. Research is both extensive, and comprehensive in objectively critiquing these practices. For schools to produce healthy children, it must address the unconscious biases that plague its system. If we are ever to achieve justice in our schools, we need teachers to appeal to their best selves by mandating training to encourage them to act on their conscious egalitarian values and thereby create a broader coalition for social justice work.  

  1. Cultural Sensitivity:

Schools will naturally have a dominant culture embodied within them.  In many instances, students from varying backgrounds, like Jamaican, Somalian, Nigerian, for example, find that their cultures occupy a secondary, less dominant culture.

Cultural sensitivity, then, implies that groups from the dominant and secondary cultures understand and respect each other’s characteristics. Schools across Ontario are not always respectful of their student’s heritage.

The ways in which the Ministry of Education and school boards address these episodes is even more concerning. Ontario’s diversity provides an opportunity for schools to engage genuinely with new cultural practices and foster a deeper understanding of the ethnic backgrounds of its students.

Mandating policies that embody cultural sensitivity manifests itself in teachers taking the time to learn the proper pronunciation of a student’s name or express an interest in heritage – both of which ultimately fosters a more inclusive environment.

Culture can be very subtle, but if teachers are to eliminate systemic barriers Black students face, they should consider approaches that: 

  • Show a sensitivity to the language they use, and the way they interpret language used with them.
  • Have high expectations of all students and their performance.
  • Maintain an inclusive curriculum reflective of the students in their community.

School boards have been reluctant to collect student census reports on race. Yet these statistics are vital to understanding the needs of the populations each school serves. 

  1. Community Engagement:

An Amendment to the 2009 Education Act underscores the importance of community involvement. It put school trustees in a position that allowed communities to engage democratically in addressing larger systemic issues. But it also recognized the collaborative process necessary for a shared understanding of preferred solutions. The Black community has benefited from trustees who look out for our communities’ interests.

Schools must continue, however, to engage more deeply with the community to achieve success for Black students. The effects of family and community involvement on students are linked to higher academic achievement, greater school enjoyment and fewer behavioural problems at school. Because race and socioeconomic status tend to be inextricably linked, many racialized students face burdens outside of school hours.

But schools should not be viewed from the narrow perspective of just being an academic institution; they are also a safe space for children. With the rich resources and assets schools have at the disposal, there is an opportunity to work with the communities to provide services to families outside of the academic context.  


School boards across Ontario are not mandated currently to follow strategies like those we have suggested. However, Black students face a huge burden that requires policies to be reflective of these three broad topics. Research is abundant on the issues most directly affecting Black youth.

We already know all we need to know, to educate all children at a very high level, free from the hostilities of oppression. What we need now, is the will. 

*Voices of Ontario Black Educators: An Experiential Report, commissioned by the Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators (ONABSE)



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