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Black students in Canada have higher dropout rates, suspensions and expulsions than their peers. In the latest episode of No Little Plans, we’re asking: how can we make education in Canada more equitable?


Black students in Canada have higher dropout rates, suspensions and expulsions than their peers. In the latest episode of No Little Plans, we’re asking: how can we make education in Canada more equitable?

Show Notes

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked a worldwide movement in 2020, inspiring millions to take to the streets to protest the scourge of anti-Black racism. And yet many Canadians still see anti-Black racism as solely an American concern. But make no mistake: it’s deeply ingrained in our society, too. And for many Black Canadians, institutional racism starts in the classroom. According to a UN report, Black students in Canada have disproportionately high dropout, expulsion and suspension rates, and they’re more likely to be streamed out of academic programs.

The quality of education received by Black students has an impact on their access to future employment and income reports the UN’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.

Racism isn’t explicitly mentioned in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, but equitable education is—and you can’t talk about that subject without first looking racial discrimination. In this episode, No Little Plans’ new host Tokunbo Adegbuyi examines the barriers that Black students face in education. Adegbuyi, who lives in Edmonton, has spent the past several years working children and youth in the social sector, mostly in public schools. “Seeing this issue from both sides, as a Black kid who grew up in Edmonton, and then as a pseudo-authority figure in a school,” he says, “students of colour have a different, often tougher, experience in these spaces. And they need advocates.”

“It takes a toll on you to always hear, ‘Prove it, prove it, prove it…’ We don’t get justice. We have to fight for it.”

– Charline Grant

In the episode, we interview Charline Grant, a Black mother of three from Woodbridge, Ontario. Grant describes how she first became involved in advocacy when her eldest son, Ziphion, began experiencing unfair treatment from teachers as early as Grade 2. “When white kids do it, we hear they’re articulate. They’re assertive,” she says. When Black kids do, they’re aggressive.”

By the time he’d entered high school, Grant says, Ziphion was being over-policed by authority figures. One time, he and his friends were approached by a staff member and chided for not wearing the school uniform. His white friends got off easy, she says, while Ziphion, who wasn’t given the opportunity to tell his version of events, was suspended for two days  After much lobbying from Grant and other parents, the suspension was expunged from Ziphion’s record and the school board issued a letter of apology. “We still went through that trauma. We still had an experience. And other students are going through it,” she says.

“There are assumptions teachers make about the capacity of some students to do work in particular subject areas. [As a society,] we build these stereotypes and teachers will teach to the stereotypes,”

– Dr. Carl James

Dr. Carl Everton James, a professor of education and the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York University, has been studying the inequity in Canada’s education system for many years. We spoke to him about his landmark 2017 research study, in which he consulted with 374 parents, teachers and administrators—80 per cent of them Black—and collected Toronto District School Board data on suspension rates, post-secondary acceptance, special education needs, and what sort of classes Black students are attending in high school. In the end, he discovered that Black students were twice as likely as white students to be enrolled in non-academic programs—the ones that don’t lead to college or university.

This is due to a system called streaming, in which the school decides which stream of courses a student should take. Different streams lead to different post-secondary paths, which in turn lead to different income-earning opportunities. “We’re talking about a society that reproduces these kinds of stereotypes. The idea of who is going to be good at math versus who’s going to be good at science,” James says. “We can officially do away with streaming, but if stereotypes of certain groups exist in our society, they’re going to be streamed.” He describes an incident he heard during his study in which a Black student and Asian student were chatting during math class, and the teacher immediately assumed the Black student was asking the Asian student for help. In fact, it was the other way around.

“[The Ottawa Catholic District School Board] approved a huge, huge budget to purchase diverse resources for our schools to reflect the diverse racial identities of students and staff within our board. This is really critical to fostering anti-racist education.”

– Mante Molepo

Throughout the episode, the subject of bias keeps coming up—how it acts as a filter through which we see the world, through which an educator might see their students. How does a student succeed if they’re not expected to succeed? To navigate those questions, Adegbuyi speaks to Mante Molepo, a lawyer and the equity and diversity advisor for the Ottawa Catholic District School Board.

One of the main problems she identifies is the relative lack of Black representation among educators and administrators in many Canadian school boards. She points out that, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, a Black student is more likely to graduate high school or go on to post-secondary education when they’ve had Black teachers—when they’ve seen themselves reflected in authority figures. “When you have Black administrators and system leaders, they’re able to implement an education system that is more likely to be anti-racist,” she says.

And that representation in leadership, she argues, needs to start not just with the people implementing those systems, but with the ones creating them. “Who gets to write [anti-racism] policies? Who gets to interpret them?…When we look at how policies are being developed, do we have Black communities consulting and providing their input?” she asks. As for representation, she points out that one way communities can help ensure equity at their institutions is to elect Black trustees to the school board. These are people who approve multi-million-dollar budgets, who guide the direction of schools, who work closely with superintendents and education directors. “School board trustees, by acknowledging anti-Black racism and really being intentional about addressing it, they can really give direction to the school board to implement an anti-racist education.”


Host: Tokunbo Adegbuyi

Producer: Ellen Payne Smith

Associate Producer: Sabrina Brathwaite

Executive Producer: Katie Jensen

Music: L CON