Fighting racism with the light of learning, by Glen Hansman

Canadian teachers, like our colleagues worldwide, are united in a desire to make the world a better place by confronting social injustices such as racism. In our troubled times, disturbing signs of a resurgent neo-Nazi, white supremacist movement have got teachers across North America talking about how best to confront these toxic forces and their potential impacts on our students.

It’s a dilemma that Canadian teachers have faced over the decades. Here’s an excerpt from an article in the April 1943 issue of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation magazine:

“…In a very special sense, the teachers are involved in this great conflict, for they in themselves carry the light of learning and the torch of freedom—which Nazism and Fascism seek to extinguish—for if these tyrannies succeed, education ceases and propaganda takes its place. Between these two conceptions lies the world of difference between democracy and dictatorship. There can be no meeting place or compromise between them.”

From the Second World War to the white supremacist movement of today, we are reminded how critically important it is to continue educating young people to understand that “world of difference between democracy and dictatorship.”

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation represents all of the public school teachers in Canada’s western province, a vast territory with a highly diverse population ranging from Indigenous peoples who have inhabited this land from time immemorial, to large communities of immigrants and refugees from all continents of the globe.

As a proud social justice union, we have a lot of experience with anti-racist education. In 1975, an African-Canadian teacher named Lloyd Edwards brought a motion to our annual general meeting that the Federation should establish an official Program Against Racism to help teachers and students deal with racism in school and society, to detect bias in textbooks, and to make classrooms safe and respectful for all.

“Forty-two years later, a lot has changed,” Edwards said recently. “But I still believe that the only solution to racism is to start in the elementary schools and to inculcate those ideals of justice and fair play at an early age.”

One of the first projects was to create a slide show (considered high-tech for the times) on the hidden history of racism in our province: the potlatch ban, the Asiatic Exclusion League race riots, the Komagata Maru incident, the internment of Japanese-Canadians, the Chinese head tax, the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples through the residential school system, and other instances of injustice not previously covered in the curriculum. The material was considered so controversial that two of the largest school boards voted to ban the slide show. Predictably however, news of the banning led to widespread interest in the slide show, and the BCTF couldn’t keep up with requests for showings.

Clearly,the urgent need for anti-racism education continues. In the past year alone, we’ve seen Ku Klux Klan literature, neo-Nazi posters, swastikas, anti-Chinese brochures, and Soldiers of Odin organizing drives in different BC towns. An Insights West study released last spring found that an overwhelming 82 per cent of visible minorities in BC say they have experienced prejudice or some form of discrimination. That statistic, and the horrific murder of six worshippers at a mosque in Quebec City last year, should sound alarm bells for any Canadians who may be tempted to think that such extremism only exists south of the border.

Social media knows no boundaries, and the latest wave of anti-immigrant and white nationalist sentiment easily washes up on all shores. Teachers see firsthand how vicious online commentary, often anonymous, can drive young people to despair. We ask ourselves: What are the social conditions that lead young men (and a few young women) to those dark places on the internet where they meet and are manipulated by those who spread hatred, whether white supremacist, Islamic jihadist, or other ideologies? How can we build the necessary networks of support so that these same young people would not be vulnerable to that recruitment?

Teachers are very conscious of the impact that the current political context and the latest news are having on students – particularly those who come from cultural minorities and other historically marginalized groups. But we also know that authentic connection to others is the best inoculation against the fear and alienation that lead youth to radical groups.

Teachers here in BC and around the world are committed to working with our national and international counterparts to push back against racism and other forms of intolerance. We can't let the white nationalist anger that led to the murders in Quebec City become normalized. Whether it's Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, or xenophobia, we’ll be standing up and speaking out against hatred.Together with parents and other concerned citizens, we’ll be advocating for a more equitable, inclusive, and caring worldfor all our kids.

Note: An earlier version of this piece recently won a national award for best opinion editorial from the Canadian Association of Labour Media.


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Glen Hansman

Glen Hansman is an elementary school teacher with the Vancouver School Board, and is currently in his third year as President of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, which represents the 43,000 public school teachers in BC. He is the chair of the K–12 Aboriginal Education Partners, is an officer of the BC Federation of Labour, and is a member of the Canadian Council of the Canadian Labour Congress.

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