Fifty-one years ago this week, a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court called segregated schools unconstitutional, one Ontario member of provincial parliament tried to convince his colleagues that black and white students could learn in the same classroom.
The Common Schools Act, passed in Ontario in 1850, created separate Catholic and black school systems. The schools for blacks received poorer funding and were understaffed. It was February 4, 1964, and Canada’s first black MPP, Leonard Braithwaite, used his first speech in the Ontario legislature to criticize the law that allowed for segregated schools in the province. One month later the education minister introduced a bill that repealed this provision.
Leonard spent most of his public life working to provide more opportunities for minorities.
Braithwaite had been exposed to racism growing up in Toronto during the Great Depression. After initially being rejected from the air force based on his race, he finally enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943 and was stationed in Britain.
After the war he earned a commerce degree from the University of Toronto, an MBA from Harvard and a law degree at Osgoode Hall.
He spent most of his public life working to provide more opportunities for minorities. He was a major player in the decision to allow female pages in the legislature for the first time in 1971.
In 1997 Braithwaite became a member of the Order of Canada and later earned the Order of Ontario. He died in 2012.
While the last segregated school in Ontario was closed in 1965, separating students based on religion or race continues to be discussed. In Ontario for example, Catholic schools are still publicly funded.
In 2008, the Toronto school board approved the first africentric elementary school. Advocates argued that a more culturally relevant approach to education would fill the graduation gap between black and white students in Toronto.
In 2012 a similar program was introduced at Winston Churchill Collegiate in Toronto. Named after the trailblazer, the Leonard Braithwaite Program offers grade nine and ten students an “africentric” approach to learning. An example of the approach was to use coral reefs of the Caribbean — where many students have roots — as the subject matter in a science class instead of the usual focus on Canadian bio-systems. The approach continues to grow with more schools in the city looking to adopt the program.
Re-published with permission.