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Opinion: Holocaust education in schools is a good start—and shows why facts matter

Commentary

Holocaust education will soon be mandatory for all high school students in British Columbia and Ontario. In B.C., Premier David Eby recently announced that Holocaust education will be added to the Grade 10 social studies curriculum by the 2025/26 school year. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford is expanding Holocaust education in Grade 10, following a similar mandate last year. 

As long as the provincial government is going to establish the curriculum rather than simply outlining learning outcomes, the governments in B.C. and Ontario should be commended for this. But it raises the question as to why this wasn’t already the case—and what other historical knowledge are students missing? 

These initiatives come not a moment too soon. A survey conducted several years ago by the Azrieli Foundation, a Canadian-Israeli philanthropic group, found a stunning lack of knowledge about the Holocaust amongst Canadian youth. More than one-in-five young people weren’t sure what happened during the Holocaust. More than two-thirds didn’t know that six million Jews were killed.

Recent events make it clear that antisemitism remains a problem in Canada. Huge rallies across Canada actively praise the slaughter of 1,400 Jews in Israel by Hamas, a designated terrorist organization.

Irwin Cotler, former federal justice minister and Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism, says that today, Canada is experiencing the most significant rise in antisemitism since organizations began tracking it in the 1970s and that these views are becoming less fringe and more mainstream.   

Clearly, ensuring that all high school graduates have at least a basic familiarity with the horrors of the Holocaust is a good starting point.

But why was this topic not already in the B.C. curriculum? Any history curriculum worth its salt would obviously contain detailed information about one of the worst genocides in human history. Unfortunately, B.C.’s curriculum doesn’t place much emphasis on factual knowledge.

In a major overhaul that began under the previous government and has continued today, B.C. adopted a new curriculum emphasizing generic skills rather than specific content knowledge. As one promotional brochure from the government put it, the redesigned curriculum places “more emphasis on the deeper understanding of concepts and the application of processes than on the memorization of isolated facts and information.”

This statement promotes a false dichotomy. Memorizing facts does not hinder deeper understanding—it makes deeper understanding possible. You cannot think critically about something you know nothing about. Only when you possess background knowledge about a topic can you think critically about it.

For example, someone who knows nothing about the Holocaust won’t have anything useful to contribute if they are asked whether it makes sense to criminalize Holocaust denial, nor will they have an informed opinion about the proposed deportation of suspected Nazi war criminals. Content knowledge about the topic is essential for critical thinking to take place.

Interestingly, B.C. currently has a Grade 12 elective called “Genocide Studies.” At first glance, it might sound simpler to just make this course mandatory for all students and assume that students will learn about the Holocaust that way. However, the curriculum guide for that course is vague. While the guide says that students should learn what genocide is and provides some suggested topics, including the Holocaust, nowhere does it mandate any specific content. 

Simply put, Grade 12 students who take Genocide Studies might never learn about the Holocaust. Some teachers would no doubt cover this topic, but others may not. 

As long as provinces are in the business of determining curricula rather than simply mandating learning outcomes, the only way to ensure that the Holocaust is adequately taught in B.C. schools is to make it a part of the curriculum. But this alone is not enough. One cannot fully understand the Holocaust without understanding the events that led to it. Adolf Hitler did not arise out of a vacuum but was a product of his time. The First World War, the Treaty of Versailles, and the events that led to the Second World War are just some of the topics students must learn about.

In short, while B.C. and Ontario should move ahead with their plans to make Holocaust education mandatory, they should not stop there. Students in all grades deserve a knowledge-rich curriculum. Providing students with content knowledge is the key to breaking the cycle of ignorance.

The GTA badly needs homes, but most neighbourhoods are barely growing

Commentary

It’s no surprise to anyone that the Greater Toronto Area is short on housing. One need only ask renters or first-time homebuyers whether enough homes are available to rent or buy, and at prices they can afford.

Indeed, the GTA-wide rental vacancy rate (a measure of rental unit availability) was 1.7 percent for purpose-built rental units and 1.1 percent for rented condominiums in 2022, well below Canada’s three-decade average of 3.2 percent. Predictably, rents have risen sharply, hurting all renters but especially the most vulnerable.

Clear demand for housing in Canada’s largest urban region raises important questions about supply. How many homes are built in the GTA, and where?

In recently-published research, we answer these questions using data from the two most recent censuses, conducted in 2016 and 2021. In total, the number of homes across GTA communities grew by roughly 160,000 homes over this period—a seven percent increase. We further divided this growth across the GTA’s 1,227 census tracts (neighbourhood-sized urban geographies).

As it turns out, the GTA’s housing stock growth (the change in the number of homes region-wide) was far from evenly distributed. In fact, more than half of all housing stock growth occurred in Downtown Toronto or at the urban fringe of far-flung suburbs such as Vaughan, Markham, Brampton, Milton, and Pickering. Meanwhile, the bulk of census tracts located in between these two areas barely grew at all.

The geographic distribution of housing stock growth between 2016 and 2021 was highly concentrated within a three-kilometre radius of Union Station and on the urban fringe—34 kilometres from Union Station and beyond. The 270 census tracts located in these areas added 304 homes, on average, between 2016 and 2021, while the 957 census tracts located between 3 and 34 kilometres from Union Station added just 80 homes, on average, with many even losing more homes than they added. This “donut” pattern of growth has several policy implications as the region attempts to overcome a generational housing shortage.

First, slow-growing central neighbourhoods and communities can accommodate a lot more housing. In fact, well over one third (370 out of 957) census tracts located between three and 34 kilometres from Union Station exhibited a net loss of housing between the last two censuses. It’s one thing to argue that a neighbourhood is already “full,” and thus can’t add anymore housing, but it’s hard to see how allowing desirable neighbourhoods to lose homes is justified.

Second, the steep decline in housing stock growth immediately outside the regional core (Downtown Toronto) is a strong indication of policy barriers to homebuilding in otherwise highly desirable neighbourhoods, rather than implying weaker demand to live there. Our research shows that census tracts between two and three kilometres from Union Station added more than 12,000 homes between 2016 and 2021, while tracts between three and four kilometres from Union Station added fewer than 3,000 homes. For context, this includes neighbourhoods such as the Annex, Rosedale and Cabbagetown—among the most expensive in Canada.

Third, faster-growing pockets in more distant communities are partially reflective of deliberate efforts to develop additional nodes of transport and commerce beyond the regional core, but could also be the result of insufficient homebuilding in desirable central neighbourhoods. Intuitively, it is likely that some percentage of households residing in outlying areas do so as a result of insufficient or unaffordable housing options closer to the regional core, which concentrates a higher proportion of the GTA’s employment, educational, commercial and entertainment features.

Empirically, past research measuring the link between land-use regulation and housing supply found that many parts of Brampton and York Region would have grown more slowly between 2006 and 2011 had regulatory barriers such as lengthy, uncertain project approval timelines and local opposition been relaxed in neighbourhoods closer to the regional core.

To their credit, policymakers in Queen’s Park and at City Hall have taken notice. The province recently passed legislation aimed at making it easier to build more homes in existing neighbourhoods, most notably by allowing up to three housing units on most single-family lots. Toronto has gone one step further by allowing up to four units “as-of-right” (that is, without the need to rezone). These are important measures, but by no means perfect. Beyond the number of units allowed by local zoning bylaws, a raft of stipulations limit the size, style and shape of buildings, as well as the number of parking spaces required. In other words, there’s a whole lot more that could be done to “unlock” more housing in slow-growing neighbourhoods across the GTA and beyond.

Relatively fast housing stock growth Downtown and in select outlying districts plays an important role in closing the gap between demand and supply, but given the magnitude of unmet need for housing in Canada’s largest urban region and primary port of entry, all governments have a role to play in enabling the construction of more homes across more neighbourhoods and communities.