1. Underground Racism in Canada

Last week, writing about whether Viola Desmond should be known as “Canada’s Rosa Parks,” I mentioned reading Underground to Canada in junior high. I referenced in passing one of the assignments I remembered being given, writing a journal as though we were an escaping slave. It turns out that, rather than some anomaly, assignments like this and worse are common across Canada, giving the lie to our belief that our education system is somehow more progressive, diverse, or inclusive than the racist US.

At the same time I was dredging up Underground to Canada memories, Lawrence Hill wrote in the Globe & Mail about reading To Kill a Mockingbird in Canada and “How Harper Lee helped Canadians ignore racism in our own backyards.” We never actually read To Kill a Mockingbird in school, but Underground to Canada was for many generations of Canadian middle-school and junior high students was a required text and is still widely taught.


My mention of the slave journal assignment prompted many memories from people across Canada of reading the book, and the bizarre (at best) assignments accompanying it. As a compulsory text, Underground to Canada helped propagate myths of Canada as the promised land, a haven from slavery, and as the “good” neighbour to American racism. I remember distinctly discussing the line in class that, “salt and potatoes in Canada are better than pound-cake and chickens in a state of worry and suspense in the United States,” which encourages Canadians to believe that racism was a uniquely American experience, and that any “hardships” experienced in Canada were insignificant “when no slave master was around to threaten and whip.” This formulation, of course, ignores events like the Shelburne race riot where white settlers burned and destroyed Black houses, drove Black residents out of town, and stole their property. Many of the Black residents of free settlements in Canada returned to the United States after emancipation, suggesting that the “salt and potatoes in Canada” was not actually as desirable for Black people as our mythology would like to believe. In Nova Scotia, Thomas Peters led 15 ships of Black Loyalists to Sierra Leone in 1790, again illustrating that conditions in Canada for freed Africans were not simply accepted as good by grateful former slaves.

Image of the ships of liberated Africans returning to Sierra Leone from
Image of the ships of liberated Africans returning to Sierra Leone from

Besides the historical content that indoctrinated young Canadians (the book is usually taught between grades 5-8) in myths about Canadian freedom and lack of racism, many of the assignments attached to the study of the book ranged from the ridiculous to completely traumatic and grotesquely racist. One Mi’kmaq student recalled reading the book and  being required to create a play where the students enacted a slave auction. Naturally, the kids from the reserve and the Black kids were expected to play the slaves:

I remember we had to do a class play and act out three slaves being smuggled into Canada. There were two black kids in my class at the time who along with a couple of us from the reserve had to take part in “slave-auditions.”

After all the parts were assigned we took two hours a day for three days to prepare. At the end of the week we had the play, which was only seen by the other class and after ours we had to watch theirs.
The slaves in our play were basically stuffed in wooden toy boxes and one cardboard which were carriage seats so were sat on the whole times.

It was messed because I remember those two black kids from up home and I think was a half black half native kid from our reserve had to cram into small boxes all wearing old canvass sacks like a gown of some sort.

Many other students remembered being assigned a “cooking show” which seemed to feature making a Southern recipe, “which looking back seems a strange thing to do,” as one person put it. (Is this where Paula Deen got her inspiration?) The slave journal I remembered writing — complete with aging the pages with tea — was also remembered as an assignment by many other students. The fact that enslaved people were highly unlikely to be literate, and that reading was violently punished, seemed to not figure in to this particular assignment. As one student recounted,

Wow, now that you mention it we did have to a slave journal and what invention would best help you (as a slave) escape to freedom? I said a teleporter? It was 5th grade?

I guess enslaved Africans should have just teleported into the future if they didn’t want to be slaves!


Silly slaves! You should just have invented one of these!

Another Indigenous student remembered reading the book in elementary school and making slave dolls as an assignment:

In my middle school in Kingston, Ontario, along with the journal entries we had to include a figurine/doll of what we thought we looked like (as an artistic component.) As you can imagine, “kid art” plus almost all-white school plus white teachers meant that many of the escaping slave dolls were…grotesque representations of Black people. And there were no Black teachers or staff involved anywhere to point out that maybe the dolls should look human, and not like Al Jolson/golliwogs.

#ALLlivesmatter (image from ebay)
#ALLlivesmatter (image from ebay)

A white student remembered a similar assignment:

We read this book in class. I was 9, maybe? Cold Lake, Alberta. They had us all make popsicle stick puppets to re-enact “slave journals” as puppet shows. My mother (who is a historian and an archaeologist) was absolutely outraged. She went to the school and complained to the Principal.

I was ultimately sent to the library to read books while the rest of my class did their puppet shows. But no one at school explained why. My Mom’s explanations were always very long and very adult and very complicated. So I actually thought I was excluded because there was something wrong with my puppets.

Damn, I’d forgotten this.

Looking online at a study guide for the book geared at students in grades 5 and 6, one of the questions on page 41 reads:

In your opinion, which plantation is better? Why? Which plantation is more productive? If you were in charge, what would you do to make your plantation a more profitable business?

It's JUST BUSINESS (image from
It’s JUST BUSINESS (image from

Well, teacher, if I were a slave owner, I would work my slaves to death, devise sadistic punishments for them, and purchase new slaves cheaply in Africa! Apparently encouraging children to imagine how they might profitably exploit the labour of African people — as though slavery is like running a lemonade stand — is an appropriate way to approach history. The very next question asks:

Choose a passage from the book. Rewrite this passage as if Sims [the abusive overseer] had written it himself. Go deep inside what Sims is all about. Explain why he behaves this way. Justify his abusiveness. Write the passage, thinking that your mandate is to expose Sims, and possibly turn him into a character readers might feel sorry for.

These assignments seem inordinately concerned with getting students to identify with the slave owning system. This would be like assigning questions for The Diary of Anne Frank that asked, “imagine being an SS officer taking Anne to a concentration camp. Try to sympathize with him!” That Sims is a Black overseer does not improve the assignment — besides the encouragement to students to “justify” violence towards Black bodies, the question asks 10- or 11-year-olds to understand the complex workings of hierarchy among enslaved people and the psychology of oppression at the same time as the other assignments are at the level of “Look up the recipe for salt and potatoes” (the origins of the cooking show assignment?)

Probably not the next book taught in grade 5 after Underground to Canada.
Probably not the next book taught in grade 5 after Underground to Canada.

Others, like me, remembered being the only Black student in the class and all the mocking that went along with reading the book. I remember classmates mockingly saying the names Julilly and Liza in exaggerated minstrel accents. “Being the only Black student was totally fun for that #not” was one succinct explanation. The same student also shared that, “I did still secretly have a ton of pride for such badass characters of black history.” For me, the image of Liza’s twisted and brutalized body is what stuck out and is my most vivid recollection of the book. Given that we never read another work written by or about Black people that I can recall, it is these representations of Black people, the only ones we ever saw, that comprised our entire education about what it is to be a Black woman.

Honestly, the other thing I most strongly remember about the book is the advice about crossing water so dogs can’t follow the scent, which, I joked with another Black veteran of the book “at least taught us all some helpful tips for when we have to run away from the police” (except police brutality doesn’t happen in nice not racist Canada!)

An Indian student commented:

Our teacher read it to us, but we never “role played” (I did notice though that the lack of supports by the teacher around talking about racism instantly created a divide between black children and children of every other race — including children of colour — and for some weird reason, it turned race into a topic that the teacher was the authority on, and not individual Black kids in the class — like their experiences were definitely ignored, and this sense of “we all get to respond to this book/information because #equality” was very prevalent…

Older Black people pointed out that the Canadian school system, despite our false self-congratulation about how not racist Canada is, has long embedded histories of racist literature and teaching:

I have to say that you are all younger than me and the school system in Canada was horrible for my Black generation too. We had to read out loud, “Little Black Sambo,”, sing “John Brown Had a Little Indian,” be taught that Pygmies are not real people, etc. There was the song “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and every time that the white kids sang it, when they got to the part about the black sheep, they would point at me. This was the way of the school system back then in the ’60s and ’70s.

Progress! (Image from Wikipedia)
Progress! (Image from Wikipedia)

Underground to Canada, taught at young ages, indoctrinates students across Canada into beliefs about Canada as the safe haven, a tolerant, multi-cultural place where there was no slavery, and where Black people should live grateful for the “salt and potatoes” of polite, progressive, racism.

Ironically, the vehicle for widely teaching about how not racist Canada is frequently singles out, humiliates, and facilitates bullying against Black students, while teaching misrepresentations of slavery, Canadian history, and Blackness. The book is filled with “good whites” who facilitate the escape of Black characters — despite Liza’s history of defiance and escape, for example, it requires a white Quaker to teach the slaves about the possibility of freedom. The book also represents Massa Henson’s plantation (a perverse nod to Josiah Henson?) as a place “loved” by Julilly, as though the problem with slavery were just if you had a “bad master” and not the institution itself.

While the book features two Black girls bravely making their way to Canada, and provides an image of Black female friendship and solidarity, this message of empowerment and resistance is undercut by the lack of any teaching about slave rebellions, or about women like Eliza Parker. Rather than focusing on Black histories of revolution, organization, and liberation, teaching Underground to Canada minimizes Black agency in seeking freedom while allowing white readers the comfort of imagining themselves to be the “good white people” who were against slavery, rather than challenging white students to recognize and understand that slavery was widely accepted, that a majority of white people were complicit, and that white privilege and racism persists today because of the same investment in white supremacist systems by average white people.

To Kill a Mockingbird allows Canadians to smugly place themselves apart from Jim Crow violence and the virulent racism of the South, but Underground to Canada, and the activities that accompany its teaching, allows Canadians to place themselves apart from histories of racism, slavery, and oppression in Canada itself.

That so many of us had nearly forgotten these assignments, until we began sharing our experiences of the book, is perhaps a metaphor for the hidden, silenced and invisible histories of Blackness in Canada. So many of us learned this misinformation, took part in traumatic, offensive, and just plain wrong assignments, and yet there has been no national conversation about what ideas and images of Black people were embedded subconsciously in year after year of young, impressionable Canadian students. It’s time for a reckoning.

Racism and Underground to Canada:as Canadian as a double-double. (image from
Racism and Underground to Canada:as Canadian as a double-double. (image from

2. Fail History Month

On Wednesday, Global News covered incidents of blackface. Of course, being a story about racism, they couldn’t simply contextualize blackface, educate readers, or at least just report the story. Instead, they had to take a poll, asking readers, “Is blackface ever ok?”


As I said in my commentary on Facebook:

Unsurprisingly, 60 per cent of Global respondents either think blackface is “Ok if not done to make fun of someone” (20 per cent) or “are sick of this debate and don’t get what the big deal is” (40 per cent). Note how Global makes our humanity into a poll — they can’t just have a report on blackface in Canada, no, they have to make sure to allow clueless and racist viewers the opportunity to adjudicate whether we deserve to be treated as human beings. They wouldn’t run the headline, “Kid bullied at school. What do you think? Do they deserve it? Are you bored of hearing about bullying? Does the kid actually look weird?” But when it’s racism they have to take a poll. As if racism exists only to the extent their viewers aren’t so bored of hearing Black people assert our being.

I’m disgusted by them making this a poll. How about taking responsibility for actually informing your audience about why blackface is racist and teaching people about the history. Instead, they undercut the explanation and context they offer by immediately suggesting to viewers that their own dismissal of and ignorance about black issues is what’s really important. I mean, sure some academic just explained this to you, but do you care? Who cares about black people right? Let’s do a poll! As if there’s a “balanced” way to be racist.

Unless the point of the poll is secretly a clever sociological study to actually find out how many Canadians are racist and/or ignorant and/or indifferent to racism, the idea that racism is in the eye of the white beholder is itself based in the centering of white experience, white opinion, and white people as the real arbiters of the experiences of Black people.

Rather than actually learning some history, or at least trusting Black people who assert how offensive blackface is, Global positions white readers as the true authorities — ironically, of course, the same audience who is “tired” of hearing about this, and self-identified as not knowing or caring enough, gets to be the validators of what racism is, when we should care about it, what the intention of racist behaviour really is, and whether Black people are too sensitive, etc. Perversely, the very fact that white people have no understanding or knowledge of racism is used to position them as the true experts.


Meanwhile over at Frank Magazine:

Hey, Julilly and Liza, IS THIS OKAY? What does Massa Riley think?

When I show up in that magazine, please don’t message me to let me know.

3. We need Scott Warnica to investigate this social media threat…

Song lyrics posted to Facebook caused Horton High School to lock its doors for an hour after a parent interpreted the lyrics as a threat.

I just think this image of Horton High School is hilariously distant (image from
I just think this image of Horton High School is hilariously distant (image from

[Cpl Jen] Clarke said police determined the man’s comments were misinterpreted.

“There was no intention on the gentleman’s part, at all, to cause any harm to anyone,” she said.

“It wasn’t specific to any school in the area, he was just writing trying to make lyrics work for a song he was trying to post.”

Clarke didn’t have details on the lyrics.


I actually investigated (tm Scott Warnica) these SUPER SKURRY threat lyrics, and I secretly discovered that this is what the parent saw:

(image from Horton Hears a Who [get it?] from
(image from Horton Hears a Who [get it?] from

The lyrics were probably just rap beef between Windsor and West Hants.

4. I do

Parks Canada is encouraging Canadians to consider national parks and historic sites as wedding venues.

Actually, TIM BOUSQUET, it was my life ambition to get married under the benevolent arms of Mother Canada [editor’s note: ™], but you couldn’t have that, could you?


Guess I’ll have to settle for my second dream, to get married at some monument dedicated to a racist or an anti-semite.

image from Wikipedia
image from Wikipedia

At least a dozen Canadians who’ve been formally recognized for their historic significance – including a past prime minister – harboured racial attitudes that would be deemed unacceptable today.

A review of Parks Canada’s roster of 648 persons of national historic significance turned up several outspoken anti-Semites, others who championed a type of scientific racism known as eugenics and a politician despised in Quebec for his anti-Catholic bigotry.

What could be more romantic than being married at the site of some historic slaughter? Bloody Creek sounds dreamy. Hey, Indigenous Canadians, get your wedding pics at some place where your ancestors were massacred!

I guess if that fails, maybe I could get married outside Barbara Smucker’s house.

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.
  1. Yup. And this doesn’t even get into the Ku Klux Klan activities in Canada, including the Maritimes, in the 1920s and 1930s.

    It was active in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the late 20s, early 30s. Granted in NB at least it mainly devoted itself to anti-Catholic activities, since it was run by extremist Orangemen who had an ax to grind with Acadians, but I have a copy of their constitution and they were first and foremost a white supremacist (British Israelite) organization.

    I have a newspaper account of a Klan rally in Dalhousie, NB, watched by hundreds, and a copy of the local charter with the names of the charter members on it, but everyone here except those few remaining elders who were alive then deny it is possible it could ever have happened. And yes, like their southern kindred, they burned crosses, and I understand, the occasional house and barn.

    There is a reel at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick which was made of documents owned by a “Kleagle” (klan membership director) who lived in Debec, NB, and the file was found in the wall of a house. It is interesting reading and contains some names, and some details of a dispute between two rival Klan factions, both claiming to be the true Canadian Klan.

    Photos are rare, unfortunately. Since they were not shy about their cross burnings and wearing regalia (the Dalhousie NB rally was in broad daylight on Dominion Day) I suspect future generations destroyed the photos to hide any proof of involvement.