Downplayed in the history books and drowned out by a flood of American literature and media, the story of Black Canadians has largely been underrepresented in mainstream historical narratives.
“Viola Desmond and Carrie Best stood up to racial injustice years before Rosa Parks and yet somehow they’re not given the same priority or recognition,” says Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore, an alumna of the Master of Public Policy, Administration and Law program. “When we look at some of the moments that started global uprisings and conversations, a lot of them happened in Canada before they occurred in the United States.”
Ridley-Padmore is the author of a new illustrated children’s book that places a uniquely Canadian perspective on pivotal moments in Black history. Through its rhythmic prose and charming visuals, Trailblazers: The Black Pioneers Who Have Shaped Canada tells the under-told stories of more than 40 Black changemakers who were foundational to the making of Canada but left out of the nation’s history. “I think it’s critical that we look back and understand the systemic and longstanding underpinnings of inequality in our country,” notes Ridley-Padmore.
Reflecting on Canada’s past is what, in fact, set Trailblazers in motion. Having discovered 17th-century Black explorer and translator Mathieu da Costa not until adulthood, Ridley-Padmore began to see the biases within the education system that formed her understanding of Canadian history. “I heard Samuel de Champlain’s name so many times throughout my schooling, but Mathieu da Costa had not come up once,” she recalls. “I felt cheated.”
Propelled by a personal journey to uncover Canada’s hidden Black pioneers, Ridley-Padmore penned Trailblazers, eventually enlisting Ottawa-based illustrator Merryl-Royce Ndema-Moussa to help bring their stories to life. In a landscape where narratives such as this are often seen as not marketable to the masses, getting the book into the homes of Canadians was not an easy feat.
“Initially, we reached out to eight different publishers and only one of them got back to us,” says Ridley-Padmore. And even then, they were asked to make revisions that would’ve drastically altered the vision and spirit of Trailblazers. Disenchanted with the publishing industry, the pair turned to Kickstarter.
Launched amid a summer when discussions about anti-Black racism in Canada reached a new fever pitch, the Trailblazers Kickstarter campaign could not have been better timed. “Following the murder of George Floyd and the conversations that have been sparked since then, I think a lot of people were awakened and started recognizing some of the gaps in their knowledge around race and racism in a Canadian context,” explains Ridley-Padmore.
With a desire for increased diversity in the telling of Canadian history, the community rallied around Trailblazers. Within 10 hours, the campaign surpassed its goal of $10,000 and raised a total of over $47,400 in donations. “Turning to the community and being able to raise money to do it ourselves was a really empowering and affirming process,” says Ridley-Padmore.
With a band of supporters and the funds to self-publish, Ridley-Padmore was able to find an equitable and supportive publishing partnership with Indigo Press which has brought Trailblazers to Indigo store shelves.
Unlike any other children’s book currently available in a big box bookstore, Trailblazers could very well be a young person’s first experience with a depiction of Canadian history that’s rooted in inclusivity. As such, Ridley-Padmore aspires for her book to expand mainstream conceptualizations of Canada’s Black history, but also to inspire a new generation of leaders. “I hope there’s a sense of inspiration, awakening and unrest and that it’ll inspire more young people – people of all ages, really – to leverage their skills and interests and blaze their own trails.”
For young people looking to make a positive change, Ridley-Padmore has included a guide on how to do just that in each copy of Trailblazers. It provides readers with the foundational steps to becoming a changemaker and outlines “how to leverage the learnings and examples from the Black trailblazers featured in the book.” In an effort to further extend this conversation, Ridley-Padmore is working to develop a workshop on becoming a trailblazer that can be offered to students.
“I think there’s a real opportunity right now when we’re talking about this upcoming generation where, for a lot of them, their first learning experiences of Canadian history can be rooted in a more inclusive and holistic approach,” says Ridley-Padmore. “And so maybe they won’t have to do the same learning and unlearning that I had to do.”
Trailblazers: The Black Pioneers Who Have Shaped Canada is currently available for purchase at Indigo.