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National Post | 27Sep2013 | Graeme Hamilton

Canada’s human rights museum was meant as a unifying force, but, so far, has only inspired criticism

Ukrainian-Canadians object that their exhibit is in a back gallery on the way to the washrooms. Armenian-Canadians fear museum visitors will be suffering genocide-overload by the time they encounter the display explaining their people’s slaughter.

Palestinian-Canadians feel completely ignored, and a prominent Jewish organization is miffed that the museum’s Holocaust gallery will not discuss the creation of Israel.

Aboriginal leaders, meanwhile, are angry that the treatment of Canada’s first people is not described as genocide.

The $351-million Canadian Museum for Human Rights is set to open next year in Winnipeg, and so far things have not exactly turned out as imagined when it was announced 10 years ago. Israel Asper, the media mogul who conceived of the museum and whose family foundation contributed $22-million to the project, hoped the building would be a unifying force.

“We spend a lot of time and effort trying to create a sense of Canadian identity and national unity and a lot of other clichés,” Mr. Asper, the founder of CanWest Global Communications, said at the time. “But we don’t do the things that are needed to create that cohesion.”

Mr. Asper died six months later. While his project lived on -- since 2008 as a national museum, the first to be built outside Ottawa -- the hoped-for cohesion remains a distant dream. Scholars say the sort of division being seen today was inevitable from the moment a privately conceived museum with a focus on the Holocaust was transformed into a national human-rights institution expected to reflect multi-cultural Canada.

“In a Darwinist zero-sum game, the highlighting of one group’s genocide is experienced as obscuring another’s,” historian Dirk Moses writes of the museum controversy in a book to be published in November.

From the beginning, it was made clear that the Holocaust would feature prominently in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a response to earlier failed attempts by Jewish groups to have a Holocaust memorial built in Ottawa, either standing alone or within the Canadian War Museum. The Asper Foundation said in 2003 that the Winnipeg museum would “incorporate the largest Holocaust gallery in Canada,” a commitment that was reaffirmed in the official summary of legislation passed by Parliament in 2008 designating it a national museum.

The museum’s loudest critics have come from within the Ukrainian-Canadian community, who fear the emphasis on the Holocaust will obscure the Holodomor, the famine inflicted by Joseph Stalin that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33.

“Our position was and remains that no community’s suffering should be elevated above all others in a national museum that is funded by the taxpayer,” said Lubomyr Luciuk, a Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association member and professor of political geography at the Royal Military College. The Holocaust deserves a prominent place in the museum, he added, but it belongs “in a gallery that compares acts of genocide before during and after the 20th century and not just in Europe but in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere.”

Last April, museum officials hoping to mollify their critics invited members of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress in for a sneak peek, before the exhibits were installed. It did not work. UCC president Paul Grod responded with a statement saying he was “shocked” and “deeply troubled” by the planned portrayal of the Holodomor and the First World War internment of Ukrainian-Canadians.

In an interview, Mr. Grod predicted the museum is “going to create a lot of tension. It’s going to create division, even in Manitoba.” He said that when he raised concerns that the display on the Holodomor was in an out-of-the-way location, he was told there would be plenty of traffic because it is on the way to the washrooms. “I didn’t know whether I should be laughing or crying,” he said. (Museum spokesperson Maureen Fitzhenry said Mr. Grod’s claim that the Holodomor was relegated to an obscure gallery near the toilets is incorrect, adding that discussion of the Holodomor will feature in several of the galleries.)

The Zoryan Institute, a North American think tank focused on Armenia, has been critical of the museum, accusing officials last year of “playing community politics” and being cagey about plans to depict the Armenian genocide. But in an interview this week, George Shirinian, the institute’s executive director, said he has seen signs of progress.

“When it became a national institution, everybody had to have their two cents, and that’s where they ran into trouble,” he said. “In the early stages they mishandled rather badly and clumsily the concerns of a broad base of Canadians.” Now, he said, they understand that more than one major case study of genocide needs to be explored to grasp the relationship to human rights.

Still, his group has proposed a major change to the gallery called Breaking the Silence, which is devoted to the five genocides officially recognized by the Canadian Parliament (the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Armenian and Rwandan genocides and the Srebenica genocide in Bosnia). Breaking the Silence comes after the separate Holocaust gallery, and yet its first half is also devoted to the Holocaust, Mr. Shirinian said.

“Our concern was, once you’ve gone through the Holocaust, you’re going to be mostly devastated, and you’re not going to really absorb anything from the other galleries, so the learning experience from that other gallery is diminished, if not lost,” he said. He said museum officials told him they would consider his suggested change but that it was late in the process for a major overhaul.

Rana Abdulla, a Palestinian-Canadian living in Winnipeg, figures the only way visitors to the museum will learn about the experience of her people is if she sets up her own exhibit outside the building. She tried repeatedly since 2011 to plead her case to museum officials without success.

“They left me with the impression that the museum doesn’t want to say anything about he dispossession of the Palestinians or why my grandparents, parents and my husband himself were forced out of their homes,” she said in an interview. “The lessons from the experience appear doomed not to be shared with the public.”

While the Jewish community has largely supported the museum and its emphasis on the Holocaust, B’nai Brith last month criticized as a “misstep” the decision not to include the 1948 creation of Israel in the Holocaust gallery. David Matas, senior legal counsel for the advocacy group, said the establishment of Israel must be addressed “to come to grips with the human rights lessons of the Holocaust.”

Last month also saw Grand Chief Murray Clearsky of Manitoba’s Southern Chiefs Organization fire off a letter to museum CEO Stuart Murray objecting that the term “genocide” will not be used to describe the treatment of aboriginals. He noted that the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs had donated $1-million to the museum “with the understanding that a true history of the treatment of First Nations people would be on exhibit. It is now abundantly clear that Canada is choosing to sanitize the true truth and continue with their agenda of minimizing the many attempts of genocide perpetrated against the many peoples of this land.”

In a chapter in the upcoming book Hidden Genocides, Mr. Moses, a professor of history at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, said the museum’s handling of the story of Canada’s indigenous people gets at a fundamental problem with a state-funded human rights museum. (Ottawa has committed $21.7-million to annual operating costs.) “As a proclaimed ‘human rights leader,’ it is impossible for the state to admit to a genocidal foundation,” he writes. “This is a genocide whose name dare not be spoken in the museum.”

Jennifer Orange, an adjunct law professor at University of Toronto specializing in international human rights, said the museum’s dependence on government funding puts it in a difficult situation. She cited the example of Liberty Osaka, a human rights museum in Japan that is facing closure after the city withdrew its funding. The mayor complained that the museum displays were too heavy on stories of discrimination and light on hopes and dreams for the city’s children.

“What’s the role of this museum and what role can it possibly play when the state is its funder?” Ms. Orange asked of the Winnipeg museum. “Is the museum going to be in a position to critique its funder?”

Arthur Schafer, director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, is a big supporter of the museum, but he acknowledged that the museum might have to fight off government interference. “Governments sometimes want everything to be whitewashed. There will be controversy. There is a risk of inappropriate influence,” he said. “All of us have to be vigilant.”

In an interview, Mr. Murray, the museum CEO and a former leader of the Manitoba Conservatives, said the museum is at arms length from the government, and he has experienced no interference since his 2009 appointment.

“To say that we’re not going to shine a light in dark corners on some of Canada’s history, we absolutely will. We must, to be relevant,” he said. “But there’s always a balance.” Stories of human-rights abuses will be accompanied by “positive stories that we use to inspire hope and action.”

Despite the controversy the museum has sown, he remains upbeat and says the opening late next year will contribute to a new attitude sweeping the city, exemplified by the return of the Winnipeg Jets hockey team and a new polar bear exhibit being built at the Assiniboine Park Zoo. “There’s a kind of renaissance happening in Winnipeg,” he said. “We’re proud to be a part of that.”

The museum may not yet have achieved the unity imagined by Mr. Asper, but Mr. Murray said a little discord can be a good thing.

“People are passionate about who they are, people are passionate about their culture, and we respect that,” he said. “Frankly, this issue about controversy? We embrace it. Why do we embrace it? Because it comes with the nature of what human rights is all about.”

National Post