A panel titled “How can education systems in Atlantic Canada best respond to calls to combat systemic racism and to adopt anti-racist principles?” was held online on Oct. 29, hosted by the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Education.
PhD student Alicia Noreiga-Mundaroy moderated the event, held in honour of UNB graduate Dr. Ottilia Chareka, a tireless advocate for First Nation students, immigrants and other marginalized groups who passed away suddenly in 2011. Each year since, a lecture has celebrated her memory.
The three panelists chosen presented diverse backgrounds and lived experiences.
Originally from China, historian and mother Dr. Yao Bian has been in Canada for fewer than 5 years. She currently works as an substitute teacher in Fredericton schools and is “learning about Canada all the time.”
Sasha DeWolfe is the director of the Office of First Nation Education at the provincial Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. A member of the Eel Ground First Nation, DeWolfe is a PhD candidate in Education at UNB and a mother.
Rounding out the panel was recent St. Thomas University graduate Husoni Raymond, originally from Jamaica. Raymond co-founded the Black Lives Matter- Fredericton chapter and is employed as the Anti-Racism Project Coordinator for the Multicultural Council of New Brunswick.
In speaking to the panel theme, Noriega-Mundaroy quoted Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who said: “education got us into this mess and education will get us out of it.” All the panelists commented on the need to widen the conception of education beyond schooling and other formalized systems.
Noriega-Mundaroy asked panelists a series of questions, including what they thought were the “gaps within the public school curriculum.”
During his studies, Raymond was surprised to learn that his university classmates had not heard of some of the “historical injustices” against some groups in Canada. For him, one of the problems is that “the lessons are taught through colonial perspective and there is a deliberate erasure of marginalized people in Canada.”
DeWolfe stated that “most curriculum development teams are made up of people from the [non-racialized] dominant group” but added that “there are people who work tirelessly to decenter the curriculum.” For Raymond, this is a start because “teachers are not equipped to deal with racism in their classrooms.” DeWolfe acknowledged that “it’s not just one activity [like a guest speaker] that is going to help.”
Raymond questioned what he thought has been a “deliberate attempt to exclude historical atrocities (…) to maintain the façade” of the racism-free Canada that the government wants to present. DeWolfe said of Indigenous people in Canada: “we live under the thumb of the Indian Act,” which for her, structures all the interactions in order to maintain that façade.
Staying on the theme of appearances, Noriega-Mundaroy commented on the recent “negative focus on Chinese” in times of COVID-19. She probed the panelists: “How can schools deal with the subject without making particular groups targets?”
Bian confirmed that COVID-19 times have “been really hard for Chinese students” who have been targeted, “consciously or subconsciously” by others. Noriega-Mundaroy observed that “we [Canadians] may think that it doesn’t happen in our backyard” but “people in power [like Trump] use statements like these and kids in school hear them (…) it affects us all one way or another and it is necessary that we address it.”
The discussion then moved to how systemic racism manifests itself in the university system.
Raymond decried the “barriers to post-secondary education” for racialized people. He commented on the “heavy burden on the university to respond.” Because “university campus can be a predominantly white space,” he said, “there is a “lack of representation on campus.” However, this erasure extends to the materials taught, which Raymond termed “theory of old White people.” This led him to state that racialized individuals, even if they come to campus, could say: “I don’t see myself in that institution.”
Noriega-Mundaroy pressed the panelists, asking: “how can colonial ideologies be avoided when the decision makers are from the dominant groups?” DeWolfe stated that much of what is done in educational institutions is decided by the “colonial-ideological experts,” which leads racialized people to say: “we’re not going to engage because it perpetuates discourses (…) that play out in different contexts.” Bian confirmed, from her experience teaching in China, that “universities should not be factories of ideology.”
For Raymond, one of the solutions would be “adequate funding for racialized people who are disproportionately from poorer groups” in order to “make university accessible” and an “inclusive space.” DeWolfe added that changing building names is the “bare minimum on the surface.”
Raymond suggested “anti-oppression training for faculty, staff and students” because he indicated that “a lot of racism [he] experienced was unintentional (…) because of unconscious biases.” Panelists agreed with Raymond when he stated, in answer to a question from the audience, that “it is non-racialized people’s responsibility (…) to dismantle systems of oppression.”
Bian added that racialized people should “have a voice, but have the voice heard and understood” because “misunderstanding is the starting point of racism”, something that she finds “heartbreaking to see” when it happens.
Bian remains optimistic; she “has high hopes for universities” because people there have a “responsibility to have a meaningful conversation about how to change”. Important conversations must be informed by learning, Bian clarified: people “are allowed to have their own opinion and have an open conversation but not an uninformed opinion.”
Raymond cautioned that “not everyone will be open-minded enough” to have a conversation; “meaningful engagement” beyond superficial presence is hard to achieve. This must be done by “also engaging community” beyond the walls of institutions. All speakers agreed that the liberation of all marginalized groups is “bound together.”
The entire panel video is available for viewing on Facebook.
Sophie M. Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op.