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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 6, May/June 2004

Too Close to Home: Anti-Semitism and Fascism in Canada 1930s and 1940s

by Andrea Webb

In a three-class mini-unit, my Social Studies 11 Honours class worked with the new resource package from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. Too Close to Home: Anti Semitism and Fascism in Canada 1930s and 1940s, which is a collection of primary source documents that examine the impact of anti-Semitism and Fascism in Canada prior to the outbreak of World War II. I am amazed at the amount that my students learned about the "nasty bits" of Canadian history.

My mini-unit consisted of three lessons: an introduction to the history of anti-Semitism, a jigsaw using the resource package, and an extension debate activity. I divided the class into six groups, two groups on each topic. Each of the groups was given a document on Christian anti-Semitism, an excerpt from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, or a chronology of European anti-Semitism. The students were interested and engaged in understanding the origins of anti-Semitism. We worked on placing the ideas within a historical perspective, especially the ideas with which the students did not agree. As we traced the evolution of anti-Semitism from religion to economics, the students struggled to understand the possible reasons for the rise of anti-Semitism in an immigrant-based population like Canada. One student wrote that he was surprised that "Canadians wanted to help Jewish refugees, but the people didn’t want them in Canada."

During the second class, I introduced the resource package. Each student or pair was given a document relating to anti-Semitism, Fascism, the Ku Klux Klan, or immigration. Originally, I asked them to record a purely emotional first response and then work through an analysis of the information in the document, such as the purpose, the effectiveness, and the intended emotional appeal. The "stereotypical image of a Jew, in the propaganda, was disturbing." The final analysis question, which came from the study guide, asked the students to assess the piece based on Joseph Gobbels’ theory of propaganda. They then worked with other students studying the same theme, looking for commonalities, and finally presented the linked documents to the rest of the class. When we returned to their original emotional response to the documents, many students commented on their reactions to such shocking imagery.

The authenticity and clarity of the documents they were dealing with helped the students to engage more easily; "the documents gave the feeling of what was really felt during this time." According to the students, that was the most valuable aspect of the activity. They appreciated the insight they could gain, feeling that it was more valid than standard textbook photos. As well, the extension on a topic they found interesting helped the students appreciate the real-life implications of the documents. The students liked the group discussions about the artifacts, sharing their intellectual and emotional responses.

Discovering that Fascism, Nazism, and such blatant racism existed in Canada during the 1930s and 1940s was an eye-opening experience for such a multicultural class. They were appalled at the Canadian government’s response to the immigration push and found the images simple, actual, and "an excellent insight into what was going on at the time." I found the study guide excellent for those who are not as familiar with Fascism and anti-Semitism in Canadian history. The student information articles provided readable background information and helped students to relate the documents within each of the themes. Using the thematic aspect of the documents helped the information "thread together and relate in an intricate matter." The discussion-extension questions, found in the guide, would allow a teacher to develop a larger unit or an independent study for the whole class. The links with current events and social thought help provide the students with 21st century context. What a positive learning experience!

Andrea Webb teaches at Moscrop Secondary School, Burnaby.

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