Jewish groups in Montreal demand better education after trial of alleged neo-Nazi

Following the trial of an alleged Montreal neo-Nazi where the judge and defence lawyer argued over the definition of Nazism, Jewish groups are demanding better education about the Holocaust and genocide.

Gabriel Sohier Chaput’s defence lawyer, Hélène Poussard, said the Crown was confusing Nazism and the Holocaust last Friday.

“According to the dictionary, Nazism is National Socialism. It was an ideology. It was not part of the original plan to exterminate the Jews. I learned in school that six million people died in concentration camps to save money,” she said.

Sohier-Chaput has pleaded not guilty to a single count of wilful promotion of hate propaganda against Jewish people. The case hinges on a single article for a far-right online publication, the Daily Stormer, written in 2017, which Sohier-Chaput claims is satire.

Quebec court Judge Manlio Del Negro said the Crown should have presented evidence to support the definition of Nazism and prove Sohier-Chaput was inciting hate.

Advocates say the controversial comments made in court are the latest example of a lack of understanding of the Holocaust and the need for better education in Quebec’s schools and justice system.

“Like everyone who read the initial reports of the interactions in the trial, I was completely taken aback and shocked,” said Eta Yudin, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), one of the groups calling for better Holocaust education.

Marvin Rotrand stands on the street wearing a grey suit with a white shirt.
B’nai Brith’s Marvin Rotrand says the Holocaust shouldn’t have to be proven and re-proven. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Independent Jewish Voices Montreal (IJV) and B’nai Brith, who filed a complaint against Sohier-Chaput with the Montreal police, also put out statements condemning the court’s comments.

“[The Holocaust] doesn’t have to be proved and re-proved everytime there’s a case for promoting hate,” said Marvin Rotrand, the national director of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights.

“You’re empowering haters when you put the burden on the Crown to prove the Holocaust.”

Holocaust knowledge on the decline

A recent poll by Leger showed one in four Canadians feel they don’t have sufficient knowledge of the Holocaust. In Quebec that number jumps to one in three.

Leger partly attributes this to a lack of attention to the Second World War in history classes and the tendency to forget as the war becomes more of a distant memory.

CIJA is urging Quebec’s Education Ministry to implement a new curriculum on genocide in the 20th century. The course was developed in collaboration with the Montreal Holocaust Museum and the Foundation for Genocide Education, based in Montreal.

The Holocaust is taught in both history and civic education courses at the Secondary 5 level in Quebec, with sections called Auschwitz Camp and Nuremberg’s Law in the curriculum, said the minister’s office.

Genocide is also taught in contemporary world courses, which are mandatory in Secondary 5.

Aaron Lakoff wearing a red and grey plaid shirt and black rectangular glasses.
Aaron Lakoff is a spokesperson for Independent Jewish Voices, one of the groups calling for better Holocaust education. (Neal Rockwell/Submitted by Aaron Lakoff)

“This program aims, in particular, to help students understand the complexity of today’s world and to open up to the diversity of the societies that make it up,” said Bryan St-Louis, a spokesperson for Education Minister Jean-François Roberge.

“The Holocaust is presented there as a proven historical fact and the fact that it’s taught shows its historical importance has been demonstrated.”

But advocates and experts like Frank Chalk, a professor of history and director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, say the current curriculum isn’t comprehensive enough.

A recent UNESCO study done in partnership with the United Nations and World Jewish Congress shows online content about the Holocaust increasingly denies or distorts the facts.

About 19 per cent of Holocaust-related content on Twitter spreads misinformation, compared to 17 per cent on TikTok, eight per cent on Facebook and three percent on Instagram, the study found. On the more private platform Telegram, the percentage goes up to 49 per cent.

Professor Frank Chalk lecturing on a red chair.
Professor of history and director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, Frank Chalk, said awareness of the root of genocide can prevent it. (Submitted by Frank Chalk)

A recent example shows that education can change perceptions of the Holocaust.

In Quebec during the pandemic, an anti-vaccination group led by François Amalega Bitondo wore the yellow star, claiming they were persecuted.

But Amalega Bitondo changed his tune after meeting with the executive director of Montreal’s Holocaust Museum, Alice Herscovitch.

She explained what the symbol and language they were using really meant and the trivialization of the Holocaust they were inadverdently engaged in.

Following this meeting, Amalega Bitondo told his protestors to stop wearing yellow stars and called off a demonstration at the Holocaust museum, said a spokesperson for the museum.

Some of UNESCO’s practical recommendations to combat Holocaust misinformation online include working with education systems to provide comprehensive education on genocide and how to address antisemitism.

It also recommends governments invest in developing media and information literacy to better spot misinformation.

Education as “proactive offence”

Over the last few years, B’nai Brith says there has been a record rise in antisemitism in Canada, and especially in Quebec and British Columbia.

Headshot of Eta Yudin
Eta Yudin of CIJA recommends all Quebec schools adopt the Genocide in the 20th century curriculum. (Submitted by Eta Yudin)

An audit by the group says that in 2021, there were 828 incidents of antisemitism recorded in Quebec and 686 in 2020. These include verbal harassment, physical attacks and online hate.

“We know that when people understand, when they’re educated, that it has an impact,” and education is a “proactive offence” against all kinds of hate, said CIJA’s Yudin.

A rise in antisemitism opens the door to discrimination against other groups, Aaron Lakoff, a spokesperson for IJV, said.

“Holocaust education should be focused on learning from the horrors of history and applying them today to make sure that the central lesson of the Holocaust, ‘Never again,’ means ‘never again for anyone else,'” he said.

Proper education starts in high school so students grow up with an awareness of the root of genocide so it can be prevented before it starts, said professor Chalk.

“Genocide is the single most important source of homicide in the human race. When it happens, whole groups are targeted,” he said.

“Don’t we have room in the curriculum for the most lethal crime?”

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