We Would Die for Freedom: Integrating the African Canadian Narrative in the Teaching of the War of 1812
“I further Certify that the Said Richard Pierpoint, better known by the name of Captain Dick, was the first colored [man] who proposed to raise a Corps of Men of Color on the Niagara Frontier, in the last American War; and that he served in the said corps during the War, and that he is a faithful and deserving old Negro.”
– Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Coffin, Adjutant General’s office, York, July 21, 1821
In 2014, there has been a lot of hoopla about the many war commemorations that will be recognized this year – the 100th anniversary of WW1 and the 75th anniversary of WW2. The 2-year long Bicentennial commemorations of the War of 1812, which began in 2012, also continue. War of 1812 enthusiasts and historians are set to mark the 200th anniversary of Battle of Lundy’s Lane on July 25th and as it approaches, I am called to reflect on the fact that there is very little public knowledge about the involvement of African Canadians in the War of 1812. Its omission from teacher resources, and consequently from our classrooms, is a contributing factor.
Three months ago, I picked up a new book in a school library that was released in 2013. There was not one mention or image in reference to Black men fighting in the War of 1812 in defense of the British colony now called Canada. In a 2012 article, a parent shared that a teacher told his child that the information in his presentation was incorrect, because Blacks did not fight in the War of 1812. When a three-episode documentary commemorating the 200th anniversary of this North American conflict aired on public television, I watched disappointed in the glaring omission after its three-week run. The Battle of Lundy’s Lane on July 25th 1814, was one of the bloodiest and most important engagements fought and upwards of 80 Black men were there. Richard Pierpoint and his all-Black militia unit, the Coloured Corps, the Black soldiers of New Brunswick’s 104th Regiment, and the Black men enlisted in other militias or regiments, helped to make the Battle of Lundy’s Lane a British victory.
The Bicentennial of the War of 1812 provides a timely opportunity to learn about the men of African descent in Upper Canada, Lower Canada, and the Maritimes who risked their lives defending British interests in North America (many for the second time). They were willing to die for freedom in their roles and contributions as soldiers, sailors, and construction workers. Furthermore, until now, the war’s impact on their wives and children was not even considered. Their wives and children were subject to extreme hardships, loss of property, displacement, and food insecurity, like others in the civilian population.
And so for me, this is one of the “battlefronts” in my effort to disseminate this historical information to young people in Ontario classrooms as to date, there is not one specific learning expectation on the African Canadian experience in the curriculum, despite a presence that dates back at least to 1604. I am grateful to have been part of two projects that ensure that their stories are never forgotten.
As the Education Director with the Harriet Tubman Institute at York University, I was part of an incredible team dedicated to contributing brand new research on Black participation in the War of 1812 through the creation Augmented Reality digital stories. I developed the learning materials for this research to make its way into classrooms.
We Stand on Guard for Thee: Teaching and Learning the African Canadian Experience in the War of 1812 (*MARKER REQUIRED)
As a consultant for Historica, I provided historical advice for the Richard Pierpoint Heritage Minute and developed the supporting learning resources. This initiative provides a visual representation that is sorely lacking in the Canadian perspective of the war.
Richard Pierpoint Heritage Minute and Teaching Resources
Supplement Learning Tool
These resources contextualize the experiences of African Canadians during the war, which is essential to critical historical thinking. Questions related to Black participation in the War of 1812 that can help to establish context and guide inquiry-based learning include:
- Who were the men that fought?
- What challenges did they face? (e.g. segregated service, injury)
- Why did Black men, formerly enslaved and free, fight?
- How did they contribute to the war?
- What were their lives like after the war?
- Where are their descendants today?
We Stand on Guard for Thee and the Richard Pierpoint Heritage Minute share a range of primary documents that can be used in the history classroom to explore these questions and embed the content in the inquiry process. Both projects also recognize and celebrate the fortitude of African Canadians during the early 1800s.
Practices of remembrance such as the bicentenary of the War of 1812 that include the African Canadian narrative can help to reduce the alienation experienced by students of African descent. For students of African origin, seeing themselves in the curriculum can assist in the exploration and formation of a group identity while nurturing personal investigations of self-definition. They can rightly and proudly locate Blacks on the Canadian landscape, linking the past to the present. Additionally, it can work to address the effects of systemic exclusion by increasing student engagement through inquiry.
The legacy of their military service and settlement needs to be taught in schools to increase public knowledge, to broaden the Canadian historical narrative, and to diversify the image of who early Canadians were. I honour their memory by writing them into Canadian history to educate generations to come.
A Stolen Life: Searching for Richard Pierpoint by Peter Meyler and David Meyler, Natural Heritage Books, 1999.
To Stand and Fight Together: Richard Pierpoint and the Coloured Corps of Upper Canada by Steve Pitt, Dundurn, 2008.
Fountain Thurman: Black Freedom Fighter
Education Director Natasha Henry on Black Loyalists in the War of 1812
Battle of Lundy’s Lane
Teacher Training Paves the Way for Realizing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the SSHG Curriculum
He who learns, teaches. ~Ethiopian Proverb
You cannot teach what you don’t know, plain and simple. Unfortunately, teachers who are teaching History have likely not learned much, if anything, about the African Canadian experience when they were students. It is also quite likely they did not receive any requisite knowledge on the subject matter as pre-service teachers in universities.
The teacher is the primary conduit through which the African Canadian experience will flow to students and without effective, continuous training, the diverse stories of Canadians will not be systemically taught in schools. Consequently, teacher education needs to be a key priority in the agenda to make the curriculum more equitable, more diverse, and more inclusive. It’s not about the teacher being an expert; it’s about being a trained facilitator, willing to co-construct knowledge with their students.
We need to move beyond the superficial celebration of Black History Month - the posters hung up around the school, the announcements, and the focus on African American icons. These activities often take place outside the boundaries of the classroom, reinforcing the marginalization of Black history, and by extension, Black students. It’s time to move towards meaningful, engaging inclusion in lesson plans and learning activities in the classroom throughout the academic year.
We currently have policy guidelines and curriculum documents that encourage the inclusion of the African Canadian and other marginalized experiences in the curriculum. There is the provincial Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy, which was first introduced in 1999. This year the Ministry of Education is rolling out the revised Social Studies, History and Geography (SSHG) and Canadian & World Studies (CWS) curriculum. These documents have been restructured to foster the development of more critical thinking skills, and the suggested topics are more inclusive of the African Canadian experience, although there remains no specific learning expectations in the 2013 revised SSHG curriculum document for grades one to eight or in the CWS curriculum documents for grades nine to twelve. However, this change will not filter down to impact student learning without teacher education. Training must be mandatory and part of the push for education reform.
In April ETFO launched an education agenda called “Building Better Schools” which outlines what teachers need to help improve the learning environment for all students. One of their five platforms is Great Focus on Equal Opportunity and Inclusion platform, which supports the implementation of the Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy. The teacher union recognizes that, “Teachers need classroom materials that reflect the diversity of their classrooms and school communities. Teachers and other education workers also need professional learning that improves their ability to address racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and classism, elements that affect our schools and permeate our society.” So ETFO has recommended that the Ontario Ministry of Education, “Provide classroom resources to support the Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy and Provide teachers and other education workers with professional learning that addresses discrimination and oppression of marginalized students.”1
Teachers need access to resources to teach about the African Canadian experience, and there are plenty. Teachers also need appropriate professional training by experts in the field so they can be effective facilitators and approach the topic with some level of confidence and, where it warrants, sensitivity.
Recognizing this gap, I began offering workshops for teachers designed with a specific focus on teaching African Canadian experiences across the curriculum. My training sessions support the implementation of the revised curriculum. It provides teachers with constructive and practical classroom strategies to help them effectively infuse the experience of African Canadians into the curriculum through the use of primary sources, online tools, and a range of other well-researched, Canadian-produced supplementary materials.
This summer, I will be offering a 2-day institute for educators to assist them in gaining valuable content knowledge and learn inquiry-based approaches to teaching African Canadian history across the curriculum. The first session will be held July 9 – 10 at the Comfort Hotel at 445 Rexdale Blvd.
I am delighted to be working with the Peel District School Board to provide a training session to the teachers within their school board on August 19- 20 as part of their efforts to implement equity policies in their schools.
Conscious, deliberate action must be taken to address the persistent and systemic absence of the African Canadian narrative in Ontario history classrooms. Having informed teachers is one step in accomplishing that.