In January 2001, Izzy Asper met face to face with former prime minister Jean Chrétien in Palm Beach, Fla., to discuss the establishment of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Over cocktails at his vacation home, Asper asked Chrétien to provide taxpayer support for his legacy project. The prime minister was supportive, but had one critical piece of advice: Make it a private museum, outside the reach of government and its political tentacles.
Chrétien came by this advice through painful experience. In the late 1990s, his government wanted to put a Holocaust gallery in the soon-to-be renovated Canadian War Museum. Veterans, along with some blatant anti-Semitic forces, rose up in protest. The controversy grew so loud the museum withdrew its plan. It was a stark reminder governments are not the best trustees of controversial museum content.
Ultimately, unable to generate the resources to keep it private, the Asper family was forced to strike a deal with Ottawa that would make the museum a national cultural institution. Even though it is still a year away from opening, we are seeing that Chrétien's warnings were well-founded.
Controversy erupted last week when it was learned the museum is not using the term "genocide" to describe Canada's treatment of aboriginal people. CMHR president Stuart Murray said senior staff made the decision without input from the museum's board.
Currently, Ottawa has recognized only five genocides: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide and atrocities in Srebrenica. There is growing academic and activist support to have Ottawa recognize the colonial experience of Canada's aboriginal people -- including the residential school system, forced adoption of aboriginal children and other policies designed to diminish, assimilate or even extinguish indigenous culture -- as an official genocide.
The fact Ottawa has not recognized the aboriginal experience in this country as a genocide puts the CMHR in a delicate position. Academics and activists have called on the museum to lead rather than follow official policy. For now, it appears the museum will live in an awkward place somewhere in between.
For example, the CMHR plans to include Canada's treatment of aboriginal people in a scrolling list of atrocities on something called the Recognition Wall outside the entry to a gallery dedicated to the world's worst human rights violations.
Inside, visitors will see dedicated exhibits on the five officially recognized genocides. However, there will also be a prominent exhibit on Canada's treatment of aboriginal people. Murray noted this exhibit will detail efforts to designate human rights violations against aboriginal people as a genocide. This, Murray wrote in a letter to the Free Press, will help "raise awareness about the nature of human rights violations in our own backyard."
That will do little to satisfy critics of the CMHR, who argue the museum has leeway to make its own decisions about what constitutes a genocide. And they will be correct in that assertion.
In fact, the CMHR will designate two other historical events -- the Khmer Rouge killing fields of Cambodia and forced disappearances of government dissidents in Guatemala -- as genocides even though Canada has not designated them as such.
The museum said the majority of academic research on these two incidents clearly justifies use of the term genocide. Using discretion to designate genocides abroad, and not using it to assess a human rights violation at home, exposes the realpolitik national museums face.
Technically, as a Crown corporation, the museum operates at arm's length from government. Decisions on content are supposed to be made without interference from government policy. However, as we've seen with Canada's war museum, there are limits to that independence. Most informed sources understand there will be instances when the museum will either voluntarily, or at the direction of its political masters, defer to official policy.
That does not mean the museum has failed those who seek greater recognition of this country's abysmal treatment of aboriginal people.
It's important to note activists and academics want, ultimately, official recognition by government that the colonial experience of aboriginal people in Canada constitutes a genocide. Few would be satisfied if the CMHR alone bestowed that designation and Ottawa refused to follow suit. Although the museum can be a leader in that discussion, the real goal is beyond its authority.
In that context, the museum's pledge to acknowledge and lead the debate on genocidal designation is valuable. It is less than critics want, but an important contribution nonetheless.
History has shown the Aspers did not heed Chrétien's warning. Current events prove the value of the former prime minister's advice.
Now the museum needs to show that, its fate having been sealed when the museum was made a national cultural institution, it can overcome the fate Chrétien envisioned.
It must also accept this is not the last time the museum will find itself out of step with either public sentiment or official policy. Or perhaps both.
[email protected]Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 29, 2013 A5