MONTREAL – There’s a very personal driving force behind Heidi Berger’s quest to get provinces to introduce compulsory genocide education for high-school students.
Her late mother, Ann Kazimirski, was a Holocaust survivor who championed the cause until her death 10 years ago.
“Her mission in her life became going to schools all over North America and telling her story and talking about genocide,” Berger said. “She realized children of survivors have to carry on the story.”
Berger is starting with her home province of Quebec and says the teachings take on even more importance against the backdrop of several Quebec youths having travelled to the Middle East in recent years to join jihadist groups.
“It’s very topical: we’re talking about 17-year-olds and 16-year-olds being lured into ISIS,” said Berger. “The question is, if these students were educated about genocide, that would certainly help to a large degree.”
Kyle Matthews of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies is supporting Berger’s initiative.
“It struck me that we’re not teaching our youth enough about genocide when we have Canadian and Quebec youth leaving to commit genocide overseas,” said Matthews.
“Something is missing in our core education when not just a couple of a bad apples but a significant number are embracing an ideology that encourages slaughter (and) extinction.
Matthews says it is important to preserve the memory of such massacres: there are no survivors left of the Armenian genocide and Holocaust survivors are elderly and dying.
Genocide education is sporadically available around the country. The Toronto District School Board has offered a course since 2007 that investigates examples of genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries, including Armenia, the Holocaust and Rwanda.
Berger, a filmmaker and university lecturer, carries on her mother’s message in her own school presentations on the Holocaust — one in which Kazimirski still figures prominently through a posthumous video testimonial about the harrowing experiences she endured.
In her school visits, Berger learned that teachers are afraid to teach it and don’t have the tools.
“An ethics teacher came up and told me that kids are graduating from Grade 11 without knowing what the word genocide means,” Berger recounted.
About 18 months ago, she founded The Foundation for the Compulsory Study of Genocide in Schools. In Quebec, Berger is lobbying for changes to a textbook for a course called “Contemporary World” to include a full chapter on genocide instead of the current few paragraphs. She also wants help for teachers.
Berger says a meeting with Education Minister Sebastien Proulx is scheduled for early May and that a previous petition as well as meetings with provincial legislators and teachers’ unions have been positive.
David Birnbaum, the legislative assistant to Proulx, has helped Berger navigate Quebec bureaucracy and bring the matter to the attention of the national assembly.
Birnbaum said academic studies suggest a relatively high level of ignorance about the Holocaust and genocide in general, but adds the matter is tackled in the current Quebec curriculum.
“There are a range of places…where the Holocaust and the concept of genocide are mentioned and it’s always a challenge to make changes to the program,” Birnbaum said.
“But my own priority is to make sure that Heidi Berger gets to make her case as clearly and directly as she can.”