In this conversation, Dean Richard Barwell and Abdi Bileh, co-founder of L'Association canadienne pour la promotion des héritages africains (ACPHA), discuss the crucial work of the ACPHA in creating awareness about the contributions of people of African descent in Canadian society and around the world. From local school boards and municipal government to community organizations and the University of Ottawa, the work of the Association in anti-Black racism education has a wide reach. Preparing future educators to teach about the richness and diversity of African history in schools is, according to Bileh, fundamental to combatting discrimination bred by ignorance.
RB: You have worn many hats in your career: teacher, coordinator, vice-principal, community organizer, chair of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO's Anti-Racism Working Committee and co-founder of l'Association canadienne pour la promotion des héritages africains (ACPHA). Tell us about the genesis of ACPHA and your vision for its work.
AB: The existence of the ACPHA is the culmination of a series of meetings held during 2014 on the issues of isolation, ethnic stigmatization, social exclusion and poverty that affect a large proportion of people of African descent living in Canada and North America. These consultations mobilized founding members to combine their skills and abilities to promote the contributions of people of African descent in Canadian society and elsewhere in the world.
ACPHA is, on the one hand, a non-profit organization that seeks to promote the development of the culture of people of African descent across Canada, and on the other, an active participant in initiatives that improve the living conditions of vulnerable rural communities in East Africa and Haiti.
Since its inception, the Association has grown and partnered with a significant number of members and networks of allies in Canada and abroad. ACPHA has worked to create and develop an effective network of solidarity and mutual aid, including initiatives with the four Ottawa school boards (CEPEO, CECCE, OCDSB, OCSB), UNESCO, the University of Ottawa, the City of Ottawa and several community organizations. These collaborations raise awareness and equip teachers, students and parents with knowledge of the many contributions of people of African descent to our society and to humanity. Each year, we offer cultural and educational activities throughout the year, detailed on our website, www.acpha.ca.
RB: Growing up in the U.K., I remember learning about the significant events in European history and the Chinese and Russian revolutions, but nothing about the history of the African continent nor its peoples. I don't think that has changed much. In Canada, are we making progress in this area? What should the provinces be doing on this front?
AB: This is an excellent question deserving of reflection and frank discussion among educational leaders, parents and students. Our Association, as well as other organizations dedicated to diversity, has pointed out the lack of textbooks dealing with the history and culture of people of African descent.
More and more people from civil society, parents and students are calling for concrete action to ensure that Black history has more prominence in the curriculum and that anti-Black racism be taught in schools.
Black students, their families and advocates have reiterated their long-standing calls for schools to combat anti-Black racism and for increased representation in the curriculum. We have seen such appeals in the many demonstrations and marches that took place in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver this year.
RB: In your recent article, Is it Important to Teach the History of Africans and People of African Descent in Schools? published in Canadian Diversity magazine, you make several arguments for teaching the history of people of African descent in our schools. But, at the end of the day, the rich histories of the many African civilizations over 3,000 years deserve a place in history classrooms. This would allow our young people to better understand our society, including racism, minoritization, etc.
AB: Indeed, the teaching of African history in our schools is indisputably beneficial. Several countries, such as France, Brazil and Kenya, for example, integrate the teaching of African history in their school curriculum.
This brings me to share an anecdote with you. Last year, I was invited to UNESCO to participate in the General History of Africa (GHA) project at the 40th conference of member countries. Among the many delegations was that of South Korea. During a discussion, a UNESCO official innocently asked Koreans why they are interested in teaching African history, since there are very few people of African descent in Korea.The answer of the Korean delegation warrants reflection: “Not teaching African history means missing out on a part of human history.”
Finally, in order to support educators, the Anti-Racism Working Committee of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO’s Sectoral Commission on Education, for which I serve as chair, has made it a priority to develop educational resources against racism, to promote Black History Month and the various contributions of people of African descent to our society and to humanity in general.
RB: You have proposed a collaboration between the Faculty of Education and ACPHA to support our teacher education students. What do you propose for this project?
AB: The Ontario curriculum contains generic expectations giving every teacher the freedom to insert learning content that reflects Black Canadians into what they teach. Unfortunately not all teachers do so in a meaningful way. Is it a lack of resources? Is it a lack of training?
To answer these questions, ACPHA is focusing on teacher education. In collaboration with the Faculty of Education at uOttawa, we offer a series of workshops on African and Afro-descendant history and culture from a new perspective, designed for teacher education candidates. These workshops are based on UNESCO's General History of Africa and the work of eminent scholars.
The main objective of this project is to equip students in the Faculty of Education’s Teacher Education program with an understanding of the history and contribution of people of African descent in order to prepare them to face the multicultural reality of our schools. Moreover, this project will enable them to effectively combat racism and discrimination in schools and in society in general.
Originally from Djibouti, Abdi Bileh completed high school and college in Montreal and went on to pursue postsecondary education at the University of Ottawa. Certified by the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT), he holds a master’s in history, specializing in African studies, a bachelor’s in history and a BEd (’07) from the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education.