Ontario introducing Holocaust education in elementary schools to counter rising antisemitism

November 11, 2022

Students in a classroom, photo by Arthur Krijgsman from Pexels

Story by Rob Rombouts, photo by Arthur Krijgsman from Pexels

Research conducted in the Department of Political Science has led to changes in how Ontario students will learn about the Holocaust. 

Alexis Lerner was a post doctoral fellow at Western in 2020-21 with a Presidential Data Fellowship supervised by Matt Lebo and Dave Armstrong. During that time, Lerner worked with Liberation75 to survey approximately 3600 high school students, to assess their knowledge and beliefs about the Holocaust and antisemitism. 

The survey revealed surprising amounts of Holocaust denial and firsthand encounters with antisemitism. Forty-two per cent of students surveyed said they have unequivocally witnessed an antisemitic event. Survey results also suggest that Holocaust education can lead young people to show greater cultural tolerance toward their peers. 

While some schools teach the Holocaust, it was not mandated at the provincial level until this week. As a result, large portions of students independently supplemented their education with outside sources. For example, 40 per cent reported they learned about the Holocaust from social media and 12 per cent saw it mentioned in a video game. This study also found that one in three students think the Holocaust was fabricated, exaggerated, or are unsure how to answer whether it actually happened.

““They’re getting information from (outside the classroom) and it’s resulting in… (them thinking), did this event in history happen?” Lerner told CTV News in January 2022. “We hear about the negative, dangerous impacts of social media. I think this is part of the same story.”

As part of Holocaust Memorial Week, the province of Ontario announced steps to increase education about the Holocaust, introducing lessons in the Grade 6 Social Studies curriculum and support for teacher professional learning on this topic. In the announcement, the government directly referenced the work of Lerner and Liberation75, citing it as “the first study of antisemitism and Holocaust knowledge.”

The revised Grade 6 Social Studies curriculum will be implemented in September 2023.

“It's rare to see such an immediate policy impact of research in political science,” said Lebo, chair of the Department of Political Science. “Alexis is now an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval Academy but this is an incredible mark to leave in Ontario.”