Canadian Human Rights Museum fuels Indigenous Genocide Debate

By: Isaac Wurmann

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) opened its door to fanfare and controversy on September 20, 2014.

IMG_5949The project was first announced 11 years ago. $351 million later, the commanding glass and Tyndall stone building dominates the Winnipeg skyline.

Winnipeg has an impressive human rights history, making it an appropriate location for Canada’s first national museum outside the National Capital Region.

The museum was spearheaded by the late Israel Asper, who saw there was a need for human rights education in Canada, says Moses Levy, the executive director of The Asper Foundation.

Asper “felt that human rights [is] the most important element of a civil society,” according to Levy.

After a tumultuous first few years, the CMHR was granted status as a federal institution in 2008, according to Levy. This means the federal government covers the museum’s operating costs.

Receiving federal money has its benefits but it also comes with potential challenges.

“I think the big questions will be around, as a federal museum, as a crown corporation, to what extent will they address or challenge some of the issues that are maybe uncomfortable for the government of the day,” says Dean Peachey, the Acting Principle of Global College at the University of Winnipeg.

The human rights business is not a place to make friends, says Peachey.

“You offend lots of people and you make people uncomfortable, and that’s part of what, as a human rights museum, it will need to do.”

Since its conception, the CMHR has been criticized by groups who fear their stories will not be accurately told in the museum.

The opening weekend was tarnished by controversy after Ottawa-based electronic group A Tribe Called Red withdrew from their scheduled performance because the museum does not use the word “genocide” to describe human rights abuses suffered by Canada’s indigenous peoples.

Other scholars and members of Canada’s indigenous and non-indigenous communities have echoed their discontent.

Photo by Gerry Shingoose

A demonstration called The Sacred Fire took place during the museum’s opening weekend. The event was meant to provide a space to share and heal by offering tobacco and cedar medicine to the fire, and to “acknowledge the genocide that happened,” explained Gerry Shingoose, a Saulteaux woman from Tootinawaziibeeng First Nation. Shingoose organized the event with two others.

Shingoose is a survivor of the Muscowequan Indian Residential School. While at the school, she says she experienced emotional, psychological, spiritual, physical, and sexual abuse on a daily basis.

150, 000 Aboriginal children are estimated to have attended residential schools in Canada. Shingoose called her experience within the Indian Residential School system horrific, traumatizing, and inhumane.

“I can’t understand why they wouldn’t acknowledge it [as genocide],” says Shingoose.

The Indian Residential School system should be recognized as genocide, agrees David MacDonald, a genocide scholar at the University of Guelph.

“I’ve argued that it violates 2(e) of the genocide convention, which is forcibly transferring children from one group to another,” he said.

MacDonald is referring to the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article 2 of the agreement outlines punishable act of genocide. One of the illegal acts is transporting children of one group to another with force.

The federal government currently recognizes five genocides: the Holocaust, the Ukrainian Holodomor, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, and the Srebrenic genocide in Bosnia. These crimes are the focus of the CMHR’s ‘Breaking the Silence’ gallery.

This is problematic, according to MacDonald.

“When the word ‘genocide’ is being used for five different big crimes in the museum, and its not being used for residential schools, you have a hierarchy which is naturally developed,” he explained.

As a museum, it is not the role of the CMHR to make declarations regarding terminology, says Angela Cassie, the museum’s director of communications and external relations. Instead, “we can facilitate a conversation … we can inform people so they can add their voices to the conversation.”

Although the word “genocide” is not used to describe aspects of the colonization of indigenous peoples in Canada, indigenous content exists in every gallery of the museum. This includes the “Breaking the Silence” gallery, which looks at residential schools as part of their mass atrocities exhibit.

The museum’s largest gallery, “Canadian Journeys,” has an exhibit about the REDress project, which focuses on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.

IMG_1491The museum boasts 11 galleries on six levels, which are connected by a network of glowing alabaster ramps . Visitors begin in a dimly lit subterranean hall. Then, they make their way into galleries that feature floor-to-ceiling windows, before reaching the Tower of Hope, which rises a 100 meters above the city.

The goal of the museum is to provide an “inspiring experience”, says Cassie.

“We show a broad cross-section of human rights stories, we bring forward multiple perspectives, but what you’re actually invited to do as a visitor is to join the conversation.”

The first two galleries provide a variety of human rights definitions, including universal and indigenous perspectives. The following six IMG_5936galleries, which are not yet open to the public, address topics including Canadian human rights stories, the Holocaust, mass atrocities, and social movements.

The last three galleries are an examination of contemporary human rights struggles, a temporary exhibit space, and a gallery which curators hope will leave visitors feeling inspired to tackle human rights issues in their own communities. The public has been able to access these spaces on guided tours since Sept. 20, 2014.

Interactive touch screens and video theatres dominate most of the museum. This allows for depth and detail to be added to the stories over time, explained Cassie.

“It is a living, breathing organization and exhibition program,” she says. “People will be able to come back and discover new things.”

Even so, Shingoose says she is not ready to visit the museum. She indicated that another Sacred Fire event will be organized on the anniversary of the museum’s opening.

Only five of the museum’s galleries are currently open to the public. Visitors will be able to take part in the full museum experience, either on a guided tour or at their own pace, starting Nov. 11.

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