New McMaster course aims to spark conversation about context, history behind 'We The North'

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A new course at McMaster University is aimed at getting students to think about the history of slavery and Black freedom struggles and how they impact life today. One of the topics that will be discussed is the popular
A new course at McMaster University is aimed at getting students to think about the history of slavery and Black freedom struggles and how they impact life today. One of the topics that will be discussed is the popular

'We The North' — It's a phrase that's familiar to Raptors fans across the country, but a professor is hoping a new course at McMaster University will help students start thinking about the history behind the slogan.

It's called Public Memory, Media and African Diaspora Studies and aims to kick start conversations about the history of slavery and how Black freedom struggles are remembered and impact life and politics today, Lyndsey Beutin said.

"A combination of building critical thinking skills and creative thinking skills."

That's how the assistant professor of communication studies and media arts at McMaster describes the class.

"I also think that understanding the history of slavery and settler colonialism throughout North America is everyone's job." she said, adding the course seeks to engage students in that history and its effects on social movements today.

That's where #WeTheNorth comes in.

Thinking about Canada's 'nation brand'

Beutin said she first heard the tagline when she was in the U.S.

"I immediately thought 'Oh my gosh, this is a reference to the Underground Railroad' and I started tagging some of my Canadian friends about it and they were like 'Absolutely not. It has nothing to do with the Underground Railroad,'" she said with a laugh.

Rosen-Jones Photography
Rosen-Jones Photography

But the professor moved to Canada in 2019 and said since then she's seen how important being the last stop on the Underground Railroad is to people here, along with the country's reputation as a multicultural place and a home for refugees.

That's the context in which the class will think about the slogan, said Beutin. Not so much about proving it's linked to slavery and the Underground Railroad, but digging into why "The North" is something Canada is so proud of.

"This is a nice example of provoking the students to think about ... how it infuses Canadian nationalism, Canada's nation brand, Canada's sense of self," she said.

"I think that it's more to get the students thinking about how the concepts of imagining Canada as the northern site of freedom infuses so much of the public sphere, including a fandom for basketball. The symbol of this very diverse community of basketball fans coming together to support the Raptors."

Learning more than 'bits and pieces' of history

It's a course Kwasi Adu-Poku said he would have taken had it been offered when he was a student at McMaster.

Adu-Poku played for the university's basketball for five seasons and has cheered for the Raptors for years.

Now a master's student at Ryerson University in Toronto, he remembers the We The North campaign as something that took Canada "by storm" during the Raptors NBA championship-winning season in 2019.

"It went from just a Toronto team to a movement that inspired Canadians everywhere. I thought that was amazing," Adu-Poku said.

"As a Raptor's fan I hear that slogan a lot and if I'm saying that slogan it would be cool and it would be very nice to know a little bit more of a historical context behind it," he said.

Adu-Poku said history courses sometimes provide only "bits and pieces of the story" and a class like this offers a chance to go deeper.

"I think programs and courses like this help give us a chance at getting that context to really realize what we're standing upon and accepting as norms."

Beutin said the course is designed to support an African and African Diaspora Studies minor.

Students can still sign up. Information about prerequisites can be found on the academic calendar.

It also won't just focus solely on basketball.

The class will also spend time studying a sugarcane plantation in Puerto Rico, a slavery exhibit from the Ontario Heritage Trust, and diasporic tourism to slave dungeons in Ghana, the professor said.

"The public memory of slavery and abolition is really the main kind of driver that brought me originally to graduate school," she said.

"I'm excited to be able to teach a class like this and I hope that excitement comes through to the students as well."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

CBC
CBC
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