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Hill Times | 16Apr2012 | Oksana Bashuk Hepburn
Canadian Museum for Human
Rights: right the wrong
Without a more
vision the museum will not make a significant contribution to the big
OTTAWA -- The oversize bunker-like structure overwhelms other
buildings in Winnipeg’s core. The northerly wind, cutting through its
half-exposed metal ribs and whipping up a storm through its hollow
interior reflects the general attitude of Canadians towards the
for Human Rights: a grandiose vision without a heart. Too little wisdom
even less spirit of Canadian inclusiveness and friendliness, as
licence plates proclaim, have marred what should have been a tribute to
Canada’s global leadership in human rights. Planned as the “future” of
in the motto man’s inhumanity to man it has managed, instead, to
and alienate. The Canadian flag tops the jagged reach-for-the-sky tower
if to proclaim that the feds are responsible for this mess. They are
un-Canadian egos are.
Problems abound. The cost overruns are immense; the initial
jumped from $270-million to over $350-million; the annual operating
$21.7-million to $30-million. The chairman of the board, Arni
Thorsteinson -- longtime associate of the Aspers, and key promoter of
museum -- resigned suddenly.
Other key position-holders have left and little explanation was
leading many to conclude: don’t criticize powerful people even when
wrong. Undoubtedly cost overruns were a factor. But there were other
Some have called it a “sightless vision, fiasco, Museum of Hypocrisy”
at its determination to be less than inclusive, is clear. Somewhere
initiative, but well before the government said ‘no’ to further
funding while donors held back, the museum was criticized for its
treatment of one aspect of a European tragedy, the Jewish Holocaust.
underscores the evil of the Nazi killing machine and its victims. There
similar treatment of Communist crimes against humanity ordered by the
It’s as if the museum’s, indeed, Canada’s message is to exonerate the
crimes against humanity. This is wrong, discriminatory and un-Canadian.
A better way was offered by Timothy Snyder, the award-winning author
history professor from Yale University, in Winnipeg last week to talk
findings in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and
The understanding of the Second World War, he said, lies in recognizing
it as a
battle between two ideologies both wanting the same piece of geography,
then western Poland, Galicia, Soviet Ukraine and Belarus, in order to
their own imperial vision. This blood-soaked territory is the graveyard
14 million non-combatants. In a mere 12-year period -- between 1933 when
Soviets precipitated the artificial famine in Ukraine and 1945, the end
war when Germany was defeated -- some 1.5 million perished each year.
Winnipeg’s population wiped out in twelve months. The vast majority --
thirds -- were non Jews.
When asked, Prof. Snyder offered an approach to resolve the museum’s
First, given its name, have it focus on Canada; the native
the reserves, the residential houses. Add internment, early
immigrants and blacks: he might have added the missteps of current
legislation and practices.
Next, deal with the horrific European war; the big ideological lies,
of terror, the dangers of dictatorships, and statelessness drawing
lessons about the vulnerability of 14 million dead, plus the soldiers
battle, plus the devastation, displacement, disease, starvation.
universality of evil: it is not exclusive to one ideology, one
A lesson that concentrates on a part rather than the whole and selects
particular focus misses too much. Timothy Snyder would have the museum
entire story of the blood lands orchestrated by both Hitler and Stalin.
Offering the Holocaust as the pre-eminent tragedy of that region is, at
ignorance of the history of the Bloodlands. And for a complete
‘man’s inhumanity to man’ he would have other genocides’ exposure in a
Lessons drawn from these atrocities have led to the evolution of human
His arguments for opening up and inclusion rather than exclusion
Today’s Germany is a far cry from Hitler’s vision. This is not the case
of the newly-emerging states in the post-Soviet space. There, one bad
government was replaced by another. Underexposed, unpunished and
former Communists and/or heirs to Soviet thinking continue to violate
rights. Russia’s returning president is a prime example.
Without a more appropriate vision the museum will not make a
contribution to the big questions dealing with crimes against humanity:
have we learned from history? Why are atrocities still happening? What
Canadians now wait to see what the museum’s new leadership will
Snyder has advanced our understanding of the breadth of the crimes
humanity perpetrated during the Second World War. The museum, too, must
forward by basing its existence on Canadian values rather than big-ego
Oksana Bashuk Hepburn was a director with the Canadian Human
The Hill Times