What Canadian children (don’t) learn about the Holocaust

Taylor Levy
November 10, 2021

Less than a century after the Holocaust, the memory and impact of what occured remains scarring. Children and grandchildren of survivors are still haunted by experiences their family endured.

While the Holocaust is one of the most recent atrocities in Jewish history, its history is already tainted with denial, distortion and miseducation in Canada and abroad. Thus, it is of utmost importance to implement Holocaust education and training.

A majority of Canadians — especially older Canadians — agree it’s important to teach youth about the tragedies of the Holocaust, however, in 2018, 22% of Canadian Gen Z and Millenials reported they were unsure if they had ever heard of the Holocaust. This puts Canadian Holocaust education in a dilemma, where the circumstances are dependent on one another; it is recognized that the Holocaust must be taught, but those of age to teach it are unaware of it themselves.

The situation is complicated by differing Holocaust education throughout the country. In Alberta, the Holocaust is only directly addressed in grades 11 and 12, while in Ontario, public secondary schools discuss the Holocaust in grade 10, but the way in which they do so is up to the school and individual teachers. The late introduction to the Holocaust coupled with the lack of consistency in the classroom leads to further imbalances in this subject.

Perhaps just as important as learning about the Holocaust is the way in which the tragedy is taught. However, this also has little consistency in Canada. Teachers are not required to provide a unit on the Holocaust and therefore do not receive any training on the Holocaust. For subjects as difficult as the Holocaust, those teaching it must be aware of the impact it will have on students. Unless teachers seek out professional training by themselves, there is no standardized training that prepares teachers — and in turn students — on this subject.

Canada is also not immune to instances of Holocaust denial. In 1984, Alberta high school teacher, James Keegstra, was charged with “willfully promoting hatred” after he taught his students the Holocaust was fraudulent and Jews were responsible for a majority of the world’s problems.

In 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for the country’s refusal to admit refugees on the SS St. Louis. However, less than 15% of Canadians had ever even heard of the ship and only 2% of Canadians had heard of the Treblinka extermination camp.

The lack of information in schools regarding the Holocaust is terrifying and creates breeding ground for antisemitism. Just this past year, high school students in North Bay were seen in a video chanting “Heil Hitler,” as they held their arms in a Nazi salute.

Despite the lack of awareness youth have regarding the Holocaust, Canadians continue to push for more education and Holocaust remembrance resources country-wide. In 2020, a petition was made to the House of Commons requesting for the government to build upon previous investments made in Holocaust eucation, research and remembrance. The Government of Canada responded that the Department of Canadian Heritage has funded numerous projects including Multicultural Programs, nine of which had a focus on Holocaust education and combating antisemitism.

Prime Minister Trudeau has also named the Honorable Irwin Cotler as Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism. Cotler’s mandate includes reaching out to schools nationally to advance the implementation of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. This was built upon in October 2021 when the Canadian Government pledged to support and promote the IHRA definition whilst expanding Holocaust education materials at the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism.

Provincially, the Ontario Government has perhaps done the most to implement Holocaust education and antisemitism training. Though throughout Ontario the training and education differs, the government has recently invested in a plan worth $327,000 CAD to counter antisemitism. This is done after the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) reported in their 2018–2020 Human Rights Annual Report that “Incidents of Antisemitism have risen at an alarming rate.” In 2020, the TDSB’s Jewish Heritage Committee launched a Holocaust and Genocide Prevention Education website for teachers as their focus was on “Holocaust and genocide prevention education over the next school year and beyond.”

During Holocaust education week 2021, the focus lies in distortion and misinformation. It is important that we move forward with more consistent and perhaps centralized education regarding the Holocaust. What children learn in school matters a great deal. Although it’s not clear whether Holocaust education decreases antisemitism, it is abundantly apparent that it is needed in order for the memory to not be forgotten.

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