One of the most pertinent issues discussed at the recent International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) conference in Stockholm, Sweden, was the harmful effects of Holocaust distortion and denial across society. And it is a narrative that is all too familiar to Canadians.
Canada’s long and very public history of people who promoted Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories continues to tarnish our collective memory.
In the 1980s, Canada’s most notorious denier, Ernst Zundel, was one of the most prolific international producers of hate material. Toronto became a hub for this activity as Zundel disseminated his own brand of conspiratorial antisemitism and Holocaust denial from his downtown home.
In Eckville, Alta., school teacher James Keestraga taught that the Holocaust was a fraud, while in Moncton, N.B., Malcolm Ross taught and produced hate literature that targeted Jews and the Holocaust. And in 2019, Joseph DiMarco, a teacher of 15 years in Timmins, Ont., had his license revoked for promoting Holocaust denial and conspiracies.
Making the criminality of Holocaust denial part of Canada’s budget helped define it — this is necessary, and has been a long time coming. Many Canadian Jewish groups have long advocated for this measure as one more tool to counter rising antisemitism.
As a researcher who specializes in the Holocaust and genocide education, I see the the importance of criminalizing Holocaust denial as a measure to counter antisemitism while helping protect our democratic processes and institutions.
Criminalizing hate speech is actually good for free speech because it helps shape an environment in which vulnerable communities feel safe, and therefore more likely to participate in public discourse, politics and the democratic processes.
By embedding the resolution in the budget, Canada took an important step in identifying what behaviours fall outside the norms of civil society.
In a country that is known for respecting diversity, protecting minorities and the marginalized, there is no place for the Holocaust denial. By taking this action, Canada is demonstrating that an abuse of freedom of expression will not be tolerated.
The Canadian legislation comes at a critical time. Holocaust history has come under attack through online campaigns of misinformation and distortion across platforms like 4Chan and Telegram.
These platforms often see vulnerable minds manipulated for conspiratorial, antidemocratic thinking which result in real acts of violence offline.
During the pandemic anti-vax protesters regularly wore yellow stars like those that Jews living under Nazi occupation were forced to wear. This trivialized and denigrated the history and memory of the Holocaust. And in some Canadian cities, Nazi swastikas were waved when the so-called “freedom convoy” rolled through city streets.
When far-right movements co-opt these symbols, they cause real harm.
Disguised as humour
Hate isn’t always as easy to identify as it was in the days of Zundel. Today Holocaust denial, distortion and misinformation is often disguised as plausible deniability and “humour.” This necessitates the creation of continual monitoring and education that Canada unfortunately lacks.
While decoding symbols and memes may not always be easy, it is a necessary step in identifying how they are used and who they target. Many are rooted in Holocaust iconography or Nazi symbols and ironically draw upon the Holocaust, which it simultaneously attempts to deny.
Contextualizing Holocaust denial, distortion and misinformation against the content that they often appears alongside is equally vital as they can play a significant role in conditioning antisemitic and conspiratorial beliefs.
These beliefs then polarize society and nurture divisions with the goal of undermining democratic processes and institutions.
For example, some former Soviet bloc countries like Hungary have condoned challenges to Holocaust history preferring not to deal with it. And historian Jan Grabowski who has encountered relentless critique for examining Poland’s role in the Holocaust, becoming the target of hate campaigns.
In the broadest sense, Holocaust denial has a corrosive effect on civil society. It simultaneously creates an atmosphere of distrust, and wrongdoing that erodes public confidence in our democratic institutions. It leaves Jewish communities and those with historic roots in countering fascism vulnerable.
Canada actively working to prohibit Holocaust denial is not about limiting freedom of expression, rather it is about preventing hate speech, fascism and protecting the history of the Holocaust, free speech rights and safeguarding democracy.
Carson Phillips is affiliated with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. A member of the Canadian delegation he sits as a subject expert on the Education Working Group.