A distressing new poll released just before International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27 suggests that fewer than half of Canadians know that six million Jews were murdered during the Second World War.
Canadians aged 35-44 were the least likely to know how many Jews died during the Holocaust – just 32 per cent got it right – while Canadians older than 75 were most likely, at 55 per cent. Among the youngest cohort, those aged 18-24, only 40 per cent knew the right answer.
Conducted for the Association for Canadian Studies (ACS) in Montreal by Leger Marketing, the study surveyed 2,295 Canadians nationally last November.
Overall, it found that 43 per cent of respondents correctly identified six million as the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Among francophones, it was 36 per cent, 46.6 per cent English speakers, and 52 per cent for those speaking another language.
Just over 30 per cent of those polled said they were not sure of the total.
More educated Canadians were more likely to know the right answer: 50 per cent of those holding a bachelors degree or better responded correctly, while just over 35 per cent of high school graduates did.
Regionally, those in Quebec were least likely to know the right answer (36 per cent), while those in Saskatchewan were most likely (55 per cent). In Ontario, just over 44 per cent of those polled replied correctly.
Jack Jedwab, president of the ACS, said the results reflect “significant gaps” in Canadians’ awareness of the Holocaust.
However, he added: “I think we need to be mindful not to set the bar too high and presume that lack of knowledge is a function of disinterest.”
He said lack of knowledge often arises from people “simply not having access or exposure to the information.” Without “significant” government assistance, the Jewish community, “which is the main driver in reaching out with information, will continue to encounter challenges,” Jedwab told The CJN.
The poll also cross-referenced knowledge of how many Jews died in the Holocaust with Canadians’ level of trust in Jews. Just over 63 per cent of those who “somewhat” trust Jews knew the answer of six million. Only 2.7 per cent of those who don’t trust Jews “at all” replied correctly. Curiously, among those who trust Jews “a lot,” just 16 per cent knew the correct answer.
The survey also asked about anti-Semitism. It found that Albertans, Atlantic Canadians and Quebecers were least likely to believe that anti-Semitism was a problem in their provinces during the Second World War – at about 40 per cent each. The highest number who said that war-era anti-Semitism had been a problem – 56 per cent of respondents – was in Ontario.
Quebecers were also most likely to believe that Jewish refugees were welcomed to Canada during the war (67 per cent). Least likely to believe that were residents of Manitoba and Saskatchewan (51 per cent).
The survey echoes the results of a poll from a year ago, done in part for the Azrieli Foundation, which found that 54 per cent of respondents did not know that six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Among those aged 18-34, it was 62 per cent.
The latest figures are also similar to data from the United States, where recent polling from the Pew Research Center found that roughly 45 per cent of Americans knew that six million Jews were killed, and 29 per cent did not.
A second poll conducted for the ACS found that 60 per cent of those surveyed would support sending Canadian troops to where genocide was occurring. The sentiment was strongest in Quebec (67 per cent) and lowest in Manitoba and Saskatchewan (52 per cent).
In a statement to The CJN, Carson Phillips, managing director of the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, said the lack of historical knowledge around key elements of the Holocaust “may be a reflection of educational approaches that focus on larger conceptual issues such as understanding the implications and effects of racism and anti-Semitism, the role of the individual to make a difference in society, or learning universal lessons from the Holocaust.”
He said the survey results indicate the need “to carefully balance important historical information with the enduring understandings that come from studying the Holocaust.”
Teaching the Holocaust is not easy given the tremendous scale of the subject, said Mina Cohn, director of the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship at Carleton University’s Zelikovitz Centre For Jewish Studies.
“Where does a teacher start if they have never had any training?” asked Cohn. “In every other subject, a teacher has access to enrichment through university programs or professional development days. However, this is not the case when it comes to the topic of the Holocaust.”
In Ontario, she noted, the Holocaust is addressed within the curriculum on the Second World War and it is left to the teacher’s discretion to decide how much time they will dedicate to the subject.
“Is it going to be one lesson, three, four?” she asked. “Given the scope of the topic, and lacking training, some teachers opt to show a movie rather than teach.”