Heidi Berger has been told her campaign to make the study of genocide compulsory in all Quebec high schools is unworkable and even unwelcome, but that has only made her more determined.
Berger, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, last year created the non-profit Foundation for the Compulsory Study of Genocide in Schools.
Her mission is an outgrowth of what had been a one-woman Holocaust educational project, which has seen her speak at more than 25 schools around the province since 2009.
The lack of awareness she encountered convinced her that not only the Holocaust should also be taught but the broader subject of genocide. Whether it is taught – even cursorily – is largely left up to the individual teacher, Berger said. Others would like to, but feel ill-equipped, she added.
Berger, a video producer who teaches communications at Concordia University, was inspired by her late mother Anna Kazimirski, who died almost 10 years ago.
The latter devoted years to talking to young people about her experience in the ghettos of Poland. Berger created a 50-minute video about her mother, which she shows before her talk. Some classes also read Kazimirski’s memoir Witness to Horror.
Berger is feeling less lonely in her quest today. In the past year, several educators and marketing experts have joined the foundation’s mainly volunteer team.
In December, she met with two Quebec cabinet ministers: Kathleen Weil, who is responsible for immigration, diversity and inclusion, and Canadian Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Jean-Marc Fournier, who is the government house leader and a former education minister.
Berger was encouraged by the positive tone of these meetings, facilitated by D’Arcy McGee MNA David Birnbaum.
In January, she met Native Affairs Minister Geoff Kelley. Her goal now is an audience with Premier Philippe Couillard.
Since October, the foundation has been circulating a petition asking the National Assembly and current Education Minister François Blais to make genocide study mandatory as “a means to creating a tolerant and peaceful society which is accepting of all cultures and religions.”
Birnbaum will present the petition in the National Assembly next month, she said.
At time of writing, the petition had close to 2,000 signatures, in large part to the co-operation of the Armenian community, which wants the genocide of their people in the Ottoman Empire during World War I better known.
Berger is hoping to rally the Jewish community in a similar way, and the foundation has sent letters to synagogues hoping for their support.
The petition notes that “significant numbers of Quebec students have no knowledge of genocides, past or present, including the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, Rwandan genocide, and the cultural genocide of our First Nations.”
The foundation, sustained mainly with her own and her family’s money, is convinced that providing students with the historical background will help prevent intolerance and hateful acts.
The foundation’s definition of genocide is “the systematic destruction of a racial, ethnic or cultural group.”
It is offering model pedagogical materials that could be used in Quebec schools. A team member, teacher Donita Duplisea, developed a workbook and teacher’s manual for the Grade 11 Ontario Ministry of Education course “The History of Genocide and Human Atrocities.” It focuses on the five stages of discrimination that lead to genocide, with the emphasis on making teens more aware of their own attitudes and behaviour.
Berger believes the best hope for getting genocide at least touched on in Quebec schools is through the Grade 11 “Contemporary World” course, which explores current issues, such as conflict. Although history is the most logical, she is doubtful the subject would be covered in any such course, because scant attention is paid even to World War II.
Alternatively, the foundation thinks genocide could be broached in the compulsory ethics and religious culture course, or English as a first or second language.
The teaching of the Holocaust, at least, is compulsory in a number of jurisdictions in Europe, and at least six American states, Berger pointed out. In 2008, the Toronto District School Board introduced the optional genocide course, although not without controversy.
While she is encouraged by the ministers’ support of her aims, at least in principle, Berger was disappointed by her first and only encounter with a senior education ministry official, Catherine Dupont, director of general youth education, last June. “She said it is up to me to propose the idea to the school boards. There are about 78 of them – I’d be 90 before I was through,” Berger said.
That response convinced her that the most effective route is the political, not bureaucratic. “People tell me all the time this is not feasible, that there is no time, the curriculum is already overloaded, that teachers are overworked, but when I think of what my mother went through, I feel this is the least I can do,” Berger said.
With the expected arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees, Berger has renewed motivation because the topic is more relevant than ever.
The Foundation for the Compulsory Study of Genocide, a registered charitable organization, is under the umbrella of the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal.