Despite Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism, black history is something that often gets short shrift, both in the educational system and in the public consciousness.
“There are so many black trailblazers who deserve a place in history,” says Tami Gabay, a Vancouver-based TV writer and producer and coauthor of Big Dreamers: The Canadian Black History Activity Book for Kids, Volume 1. “Our goal is to teach kids about these extraordinary people, and that so much of overcoming adversity is just having the courage and perseverance to see something through, especially when people say ‘You can't do that.’”
The idea for Big Dreamers came about when Gabay and long-time friend Akilah Newton, who founded the Montreal-based organization Overture With the Arts, discovered they both had plans to create a diversity-themed educational book.
“I said, ‘We should just do it together,’” Gabay recalls, “and Akilah’s such a dynamo that she just kept the project moving along. We decided to self-publish, so we’re very much invested in it, and we’re working to get the book into every school board in Canada. In the meantime, it’ll be available in bookstores and on our website.”
With an incredible richness and depth to black history in Canada, it turned out that one of the most difficult parts of writing the book was who to include, and who to leave out.
“We had four categories which we wanted to make sure we had covered—politicians, artists, trailblazers, and athletes, but it was really, really hard to make the final choices“, Gabay says in conversation at the Straight’s offices. “It’s actually a wonderful problem to have, we tried to do our best to represent each of those categories really well, but there are still so many people of elevated distinction we need to put in subsequent volumes.
“These people made an enormous difference to the country, quietly in some cases, but they were so incredibly strong about making change happen,” she continues, noting such history makers as Viola Desmond, Rosemary Brown, Ferguson Jenkins, and the No. 2 Construction Battalion, which served during World War I and was the first and only all-black enlisted unit in Canadian military history.
Written for Grade 2 and above (although the colouring-book aspect will appeal to younger children), Big Dreamers is a lively work, incorporating puzzles, songs, and images to tell its story. It’s absorbing and enlightening, to be sure, but it also provides some shining examples to children who often feel invisible.
“Young black kids don’t get to see themselves reflected very often, and that's super, super important—getting that representation is a big deal,” says Gabay. “People ask me, ‘Why are you doing this, you're white?’ Well, I'm not white, I'm Middle Eastern, and seeing any kind of diversity represented was always really important to me when I was a kid. The idea is, eventually, to do books for other groups as well. ”
Gabay also stresses that black history is something that needs to be celebrated for the entire year, and not just during Black History Month.
“Canadian black history is just history, full stop,” she says, “but the big point here is that while our differences are something to be celebrated, we're not really all that different. The things that divide us are not the things that define us.”
In the end, Gabay hopes that Big Dreamers—and the study of black history—will teach children that positive things can come from difficult circumstances.
“We want kids to dream big, be agents of change, take a lesson from these people, and every day do some small good that has a great ripple effect.”