A picture of Coleen and Greg Birkett

Educators make Canadian Black history a year-round priority

Coleen and Greg Birkett recently took a group of kids on a Black history journey using a GO Train.

Feb 22, 2023

Greg and Coleen Birkett have gone from teaching a few students to almost the entire country.

The sibling duo are teachers turned education consultants.

They’re responsible for a Canadian Black history webinar attended by teachers from coast to coast and their approach to teaching has helped bring an updated curriculum to students from kindergarten to Grade 12 – all year round.

“We are helping to weave Canadian Black History into the curriculum across all subjects, not just history,” says Coleen Birkett.

“Something taught throughout the year, rather than just in February.”

The pair have also contributed to a textbook that’s used by Bermuda, Nova Scotia and Greater Toronto schools.

But the Birkett’s work goes far beyond the classroom.

Both Coleen and Greg are accomplished writers and mentors. Greg is a playwright and performs spoken word poetry. Coleen has also taught in Central America, and Bermuda - and brings that international experience to Toronto.

Bringing history to life

The Birkett’s recently turned a GO Train car into a classroom during a field trip to the Oakville Museum.

“The kids were really excited – it was the first time on a GO Train for many of them,” says Coleen Birkett.

“They were able to balance the excitement of the ride with learning about the importance of Black History.”

Oakville was chosen as it was one of the terminals for the underground railroad – making both the mode of transportation and the destination key to the history lesson.

Greg says the students were able to get an idea of what life might have been like for formerly enslaved people of African descent – many of which that stood at that very place in Southern Ontario more than 100-years-ago.

“As we told them about the underground railroad, using language like tracks, conductor and cargo, while actually on a train – it was very symbolic,” says Greg Birkett.

An image of Coleen and Greg Birkett with students

Canadian Black History all year round

The Birkett’s say the heightened awareness from media and companies during Black History Month is helpful but making Canadian Black History a 12-month routine is key.

“Understanding history helps us understand the present as well,” says Greg Birkett.

“Why things like anti-Black racism still exist today, and how to fight systemic barriers in the future, so things are equitable for everyone.”

The Birkett’s note that many Canadians don’t realize that Black people have been in Canada for more than 400 years and anti-Black racism has been around just as long. That’s a lot of material to cover. And usually, Canadians associate with African American history rather than the Canadian experience. Greg and Coleen Birkett say many students and educators are fascinated to learn much of what happened in the U.S., happened here – just earlier in some cases.

Celebrating Black excellence is also a big part of Black History and something the Birkett’s hope isn’t lost along the way.

“Whether it’s Black scholars, activists or politicians – there are so many Black people that have contributed positively to Canadian society,” says Coleen Birkett.

While history can shine a light on challenging things like slavery and segregation, the Birkett’s are helping weave Canadian Black history into the national fabric for this generation and the next.

by Scott Money Metrolinx editorial content manager