This address was delivered on Sunday April 22, 2018 at the Armenian Genocide Memorial Ceremony, attended by the Premier of Ontario, the Mayor of Toronto, Members of Parliament, Members of Provincial Parliament, City Councillors, and representatives from school boards around the Greater Toronto Area.
Reverend Fathers, Premier Wynne, Mayor Tory, Members of Parliament, Members of the Ontario Legislative Assembly, City Councillors, School Board Trustees and Superintendents, and assembled community members.
I am humbled and honoured to be here speaking with you today. I am truly grateful for the opportunity.
I don’t remember how or when I learned that my grandmother, Lotte Anthony, lived in Nazi Germany. I cannot recall who told me about all of the laws that restricted her ability to go to school and to travel freely throughout Germany. I certainly don’t remember who told me about her escape to England on the kindertransport or about the gas chambers where millions, including my great grandparents were murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. I do know that this family background and story is what has made me a fighter for human rights and a genocide educator.
As soon as I heard about a brand-new course, Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, I knew I needed to bring it to Weston Collegiate Institute. For years, I was told by my school’s (now former) principal that I could not offer it. Finally, I’d had it with hearing “no” about this and just forced it into our course offering. And I’m glad I did. It has now run for four years in a row with solid student interest and is running again next year with a tremendous increase in the number of the students enrolled.
The Armenian Genocide is one full unit of this course. We spend two to three months (as long as it takes) to look at the stages of genocide as they pertain to the Armenian Genocide.
We use poetry and art. We use documentaries. We use survivor testimonies and academic sources. We use guest speakers. The study of the Armenian Genocide requires us to use a wide variety of sources so that we can draw as many people into the learning and make the information accessible to as many people as possible. It’s not enough to simply use a textbook, a series of readings, or films. The lessons of the Armenian Genocide are far too important and need to be taught in an active way. We end this unit with the continued creation of a monument that, when finished, will be housed in Weston Collegiate Institute to memorialize the victims of the Armenian Genocide.
We are also working this year to implement a program for my students to create an Armenian Genocide Memorial Day at Weston Collegiate. That’s because it’s not just about learning about the Armenian people and the Genocide. It’s about activism. The ultimate goal needs to be this: to inspire students, no matter who they are, to be active in educating others about the Armenian Genocide and to press for increased recognition of the Genocide. It’s about fighting against the forces of denial to make way for governments of the world — all governments of the world — to acknowledge how, in the past, humans have treated other humans in the most inhumane and disgusting of ways.
In a time where we talk so much about bullying, cyberbullying, rights, freedoms, and citizenship, this course teaches the most crucial of lessons. Of all the courses I teach and have taught (and that’s a lot of different courses), I can honestly say that genocide, dehumanization, human rights, and activism are the most important concepts about which students can learn in school.
You can feel that when you are sitting in a classroom or an auditorium filled with students, and everyone is silent listening to a former child soldier like Michel Chikwanine or Emmanuel Jal about how they were kidnapped, drugged, and brainwashed to become killing machines. You know something important is taking place within someone when there are tears in the eyes of students who are listening to a Holocaust survivor share their story during Holocaust Education Week. When a man like Raffi Sarkissian comes in to speak about the Armenian Genocide and its profound impact on his life, the message that genocide traumatizes Armenian survivors as well as successive generations resonates with my students. Emotions also run high when everything in a class organically stops because students want silence and personal reflection time to engage with artifacts that tell a story of a person or family during a genocide, like when, just last week, my students got to put their hands on a trunk that my grandmother — my Oma — took out of Nazi Germany that gives us a direct physical connection to Fritz and Lily Steiner, my great grandparents.
The emotions and thoughts in those pivotal and transformative moments are what the course is all about. The significance of taking those moments and maximizing the impact is something that can really change someone. And when a student has a year or a semester of experience after experience, you can see the growth in them.
Everything in this course has one eye on the past and the other on the future. We are frequently talking about countries and regions where there are human beings suffering inhumane and disgusting treatment at the exact moment when we are sitting in room 205 at Weston Collegiate Institute, just as there are human beings living under the constant threat of death as you and I sit here right now.
I believe, as do many, that each and every one of us has the obligation, as human beings living on this planet, to be an upstander. If we don’t live up to that obligation, we are bystanders, and therefore complicit in the dehumanization, discrimination, torture, and murders of many. I refuse to be complicit and I hope that by the end of the course my students will refuse as well.
Some of my former students have simply become more educated in the area of global human rights and genocide. One became deeply involved in STAND Canada, an organization that is concerned with the genocide and ongoing killings in the Darfur region of Sudan and other genocides around the world. Just this morning, it’s being reported that refugees that fled to Chad to escape the genocide were returning to Sudan and were gunned down upon their return. Others have become volunteers with ALPHA Education which is concerned with the ongoing denial by the Japanese government of human rights violations during World War II in Asia, specifically, Chinese, Korean, and Filipino women who were taken and used as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army’s soldiers in comfort stations. These students have seen meaning added to their lives through their experiences in this course. I know that this will continue.
My school is just one school of who knows how many schools in Ontario and in Canada. Very few of these schools offer a course in genocide and crimes against humanity. Every school should have this course or a similar one.
I have a vision for human rights and genocide education in our province and in our country. Governments should push to have this course or a similar one in each and every school, so that all students have the choice to take this course. I would be more than happy to work, for free, to create a training program to make this possible and to work to resolve any and all issues to make this happen.
I hope that someone in this room will come up to me in the next few minutes to take me up on this or to make it happen.
I thank you very for your time.