“Canada’s history is not immune to slavery and racism, but we don’t talk about it. Our schools don’t teach it. And once you’re aware of it, it’s very hard to ignore.”
Growing up, Nora knew her family didn’t fit the mould in their affluent Montreal neighbourhood. Her father is African-American and her mother is French-Canadian, and Nora was made aware at a young age that she wasn’t white like her peers.
“I’ve experienced racism as a kid and as an adult but tended to make up excuses and isolate it to each individual,” says Nora. “That all changed when I had kids. I’ve become so much more aware, and it’s difficult to ignore. You start second guessing people’s intentions.”
Now a mother of five, Nora is raising her family in Outremont, the most central borough of Montreal. She says Outremont doesn’t reflect the diverse population of the city.
One particular incident at Nora’s son’s school was a wake-up call. Her son, then in grade five, was approached by a younger boy at recess on the school playground. The boy said: “I’m afraid of you because of the colour of your skin.”
“That child could grow up to be a police officer, a judge, a person with authority,” says Nora.
“The fact that he already holds this point of view tells me that we are failing at all levels — as parents, as teachers, as an education system. And it needs to change.
“So I asked myself, ‘What can I do to change this mindset?’”
Nora started at the source. She went to her son’s school to talk about correcting the playground incident, improving black history education within the French school system, and having more open discussions in the classroom.
But the school met her ideas with reluctance and negativity.
Demoralized but not defeated, Nora turned to the parents. She emailed every parent from the four neighbourhood schools and heard back from Jennifer Dorner, another concerned parent who wanted to see more inclusion in the French school system. Together, they formalized a committee known as Pluralism Outremont, set up a website, and rallied 30 other parents to join.
This group of parents is from a wide range of backgrounds, and they are committed to building vibrant and inspiring school environments for all children. They want schools to be a space where all children feel included and recognize themselves in the curriculum. They champion the cause at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels, and they organize local events to celebrate the diverse cultures in their community.
Pluralism Outremont’s first event was for Black History Month in 2017. They created a fun event where families in the community could learn, ask questions without judgement, and be exposed to Canada’s full history with racism and slavery.
Over 200 families attended the event. There were word scrambles, interactive timelines, animated films, and treasure hunts that educated attendees on the history of African descendants in Quebec and prominent black Canadians.
“We can’t move forward as a community or a country without looking back first. It’s important that we raise our children with a sense of awareness about the world they live in,” says Nora. “They should know about our history of segregation and struggle and the powerful black Canadians who shaped our country.”
The committee made an effort to tell that history from a social perspective so families could mingle and enjoy each other’s company while learning about black history and breaking down barriers.
This year marks the committee’s second event for Black History Month. To raise money, Nora turned to GoFundMe.
The event, aptly named “Testify,” will focus on testimonies and stories from black people in Montreal, Quebec, and Canada. With Montreal’s large Haitian refugee and South African population, “Testify” will also look at the history of oppression in these two countries.
“Many people hold the opinion that racism doesn’t exist here, but I can tell you it does,” says Nora. “In Canada, it’s more of an undertone, and that is just as dangerous. It makes it more difficult to pinpoint, but it still affects us.
“As a parent, I want my children to know and love how they look, and know and love where they came from. We have a long way to go to change mindsets, but I’m encouraged by the response of our community.”