New online course highlights the vital presence of Black Canadians

The U of A’s latest micro-course celebrates Black history and accomplishments spanning from the country’s founding to its future.

The University of Alberta is launching a new online, on-demand micro-course celebrating the history and accomplishments of Black Canadians.

Called Black Canadians: History, Presence and Anti-Racist Futures, the course also explores the legacy of systemic racism and unconscious racial bias in Canadian institutions.

“Anti-Black racism is something that’s systemic and structural,” says course director Andy Knight, U of A political scientist and provost fellow in Black excellence and leadership.

“I call it polite racism, because in Canada we have a tendency to sweep things under the rug — we don’t like to talk about the nasty elements of the way Black people are treated.”

Developed by Knight and multidisciplinary artist Brandon Wint, Black Canadians is open to anyone and offered in four short modules through Coursera, the U.S.-based massive open online course provider. It is meant to help decolonize the university curriculum by filling in gaps of knowledge about Black history and the Black lived experience, but also to expose the wider community — including high school students — to the perils of white supremacist ideology.

“There’s an impression sometimes that the history of Black people only started with transatlantic slavery,” says Knight. “But there’s a history before that we need to acknowledge and understand.”

Wint says one reason he became a writer was to follow the example of Trinidadian Canadian poet and social activist Dionne Brand, whose work he first encountered in university. He credits her poetry with evoking his own Caribbean ancestry in ways visceral and deep, a spirit he hopes to convey in the content of this course.

“I realized that if writing can arouse this sort of blood memory, this ancestral kind of recall, then it can do anything.

“There’s an entire trajectory and lineage of Black Canadian activism — and of Black Canadian artistry in multiple forms — testifying not only to our presence here, but to our life-giving capacity as Black folks.”

Above all, the course is designed as a tribute, highlighting “stories of Black migration, struggle, community building, activism and artistry, with the goal of recognizing and celebrating the humanity of Black people in Canada.”

Knight says the idea for Black Canadians was partly sparked by the “George Floyd moment” in the spring of 2020, when the African American man was murdered by white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minnesota.

“It was at that point that I decided we had to speak up about Black history and the Black lived experience. Perhaps not in a confrontational way, but rather to remind people that Blackness and whiteness are ideological constructs — they’re not real things.”

The course was also a natural extension of Knight’s successful podcast series, BlackTalk, featuring interviews with luminous Black cultural figures on issues of racism, diversity, equity and inclusion. Framed as “conversational, not judgmental,” the series “provides a unique take on the Black experience to help people of all backgrounds open their eyes, reflect and challenge their thinking,” he says.

Black Canadians features lessons on the history of Black people in Canada, including their role in the country’s founding and in the Underground Railroad and the civil rights movement. It also highlights the Black Canadian artists, musicians and writers considered among the best in the world.

Those enrolled in the course could probably complete it in just five or six hours, says Knight, or take as long as they like to reflect and absorb the content.

“In the end, I think people will walk away with a sense of empowerment,” he says. 

“But I hope the audience is not just Black people. It’s good for the entire country to realize diversity is a strength rather than weakness, and that Black people have important contributions to make towards making Canada a better place.”

Learners can take the course for free or earn a completion certificate for a registration fee of $60.

Black Canadians joins the more than 35 U of A courses hosted on Coursera. Developed and hosted by the faculties of arts, Native studies and science, the courses have registered some two million students from nearly 180 countries.