The Ontario government recently announced a series of reforms to combat what it classifies as "rising antisemitism across Ontario schools."
Minister of Education Stephen Lecce stated the curriculum changes include the introduction of mandatory Holocaust learning for the first time in elementary schools.
The announcement came just over one year removed from an antisemitic incident at a North Bay school that made national news.
BayToday broke the story in September 2021 after parents expressed concerns for the safety of their children and shared the video depicting middle school students marching on the grounds of Ecole secondaire catholique Algonquin while using Nazi salutes and shouting antisemitic slurs. No charges were laid in relation to the incident but participants were disciplined by the school under the guidance of the board.
In the aftermath, Evan Balgord, the executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network told BayToday that the situation in North Bay was "one of the most shocking examples of this kind of thing happening in a school. It is to that level of severity."
Conseil scolaire catholique Franco-Nord addresses the announcement of the new curriculum and the steps taken at Ecole secondaire catholique Algonquin to turn the widely publicized actions of a few on its school grounds into an important life lesson for the entire school community.
"Following the sad and unfortunate incident in September 2021, our school community denounced the intolerable behaviour of some students. Important partnerships and increased dialogue with the North Bay and global Jewish community have been established to further benefit and enrich the education of our youth. Throughout the last school year, students systematically engaged, and continue to participate, in numerous awareness activities, received community presentations and attended school talks regarding the Holocaust, racism, discrimination, intimidation, diversity, and inclusion, as well as took part in humanitarian projects that reflect their Catholic values."
Just over one month after the Algonquin incident, the Rainbow District School Board responded to an antisemitic incident at Manitoulin Secondary, that was likened to the one in North Bay. According to the Ministry of Education, the situation is not unique to any one region of the province. The MoE reported over 50 incidents involving antisemitic hate symbols that occurred in the Toronto District School Board alone in the 2021-22 school year.
"Educating and supporting young people in their personal development is essential and is everyone's responsibility to ensure inclusive, welcoming and safe environments as well as to uphold the dignity of all human beings in order to create a better world," the school board states. "Conseil scolaire catholique Franco-Nord, with the support of various partners such as the Ministry of Education continues its mission to engage every student to learn, to reach their potential, to pursue their dreams, and to build the French-language Catholic community," by adding the subject to the Grade 6 curriculum.
According to Western University and Liberation75's 2021 study of antisemitism and Holocaust knowledge, 42 per cent of students surveyed said they have unequivocally witnessed an antisemitic event. This study also found that one in three students think the Holocaust was fabricated, exaggerated or they are unsure if it actually happened.
For the first time, Ecole secondaire catholique Algonquin students and staff observed International Holocaust Remembrance and Crimes Against Humanity Prevention Day in January. According to an announcement from the school, students and staff demonstrated their solidarity with the North Bay and global Jewish communities through a virtual celebration to commemorate and honour the memory of victims.
"This day of remembrance is very significant," said Algonquin's student council president at the time. "On behalf of all of us, I offer my sincere apologies to the Jewish community for the unacceptable behaviour of some. The Barons remain committed to promoting the values of diversity and inclusion to ensure that we are all responsible citizens who uphold the dignity of all human beings."
"We appreciate that the school is committing to ensuring students and staff learn from the antisemitic incident that took place and is commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day," said Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies President Michael Levitt then. "Education and learning the lessons of the past are critical when it comes to combatting antisemitism and other forms of hate."
The school board says, through the support and guidance of many community partners, such as Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Canada Centre, Sons of Jacob Synagogue, OutLoud North Bay, and the Nipissing University Black Association for Student Expression (NUBASE), Conseil scolaire catholique Franco-Nord "continually educates and accompanies its students in their personal development."
Levitt said of the recent government announcement, "Recent studies among Canadian youth have revealed an overwhelming lack of knowledge about the history of the Holocaust, the ultimate example of what happens when hate is left unchecked. We commend the Ontario Ministry of Education for taking this monumental step in ensuring that the lessons from the Holocaust and the legacy of survivors are never forgotten."
Marvin Rotrand, a national director with B'nai Brith Canada, a Jewish service organization and advocacy group, visited North Bay in May to salute the leadership of then-Mayor Al McDonald for calling out antisemitism. According to the group's annual audit, in 2021, there were 2,799 antisemitic incidents recorded, up 60 per cent over a five-year span. Violent antisemitic incidents increased from nine in 2020 to 75, nationally, with 29 of those in Ontario.
"North Bay was in every newspaper in Canada for almost 10 days. That's a long news cycle. That was for the wrong reasons, that's not what you want for your town but the community rallied," said Rotrand.
Lecce said, "With antisemitism on the rise, we are introducing mandatory Holocaust education in elementary schools, expanding resources and strengthening anti-hate training for Ontario students, educators, and families."
The Ontario government is announcing actions to counter this hate:
- Ontario will implement its first mandatory learning requirement in elementary school on Holocaust education in the Grade 6 curriculum to help younger students gain a deeper understanding of the significance of the Holocaust.
- The Ministry of Education will work with the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) to develop professional learning, also known as an Additional Qualification, for teachers so they can further support efforts to educate students on the Holocaust.
Mandatory learning about the Holocaust and other acts of genocide is included in the current Grade 10 "Canadian History Since World War I course." The revised Grade 6 social studies curriculum, which is part of Ontario’s modernization of the curriculum, will be implemented in September 2023.
Ontario is also investing in community partnerships to help students learn about historical and present-day discrimination and how to identify and address hate. These initiatives include:
- The launch of the Antisemitism Classroom Toolkit, designed by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, to provide parents and educators content and learning strategies to combat antisemitism.
- Introduction of Unlearn Antisemitism, developed by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), a resource hub for educators and parents to learn about, identify, and take action to address antisemitism.
- Promotion of Antisemitism resources and guides to support parents and students from the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation.
- $140,000 to Liberation75 to provide Holocaust/antisemitism education resources for educators and supports for students.
"My father was a Holocaust survivor whose entire family was murdered in Auschwitz," said Marilyn Sinclair, the founder of Liberation75. "He spoke to Ontario schools for more than 20 years and always finished his speeches by imploring students to fight hate and protect the freedoms of our great country. Hate begins in the younger grades and this outstanding initiative allows us to teach students what it means to be good citizens. In a time when we are losing Holocaust survivor witnesses, “never again“ won’t just be an empty phrase, it will be a requirement. I couldn’t be more thrilled and am so grateful to Minister Lecce for his leadership. "