Manitoba's aboriginal chiefs believe their $1-million donation to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights should give them clout about whether the museum uses the controversial term "genocide" to describe Canada's aboriginal policies.
After discussing the matter for days, the chiefs sent a blistering private letter Friday to the museum, which recently decided against using "genocide."
The museum seems to be "sanitizing the true history of Canada's shameful treatment of First Nations," says the letter from Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief Murray Clearsky to museum CEO Stuart Murray.
The letter ties the "genocide" debate to a $1-million donation from aboriginal casino profits and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
"In 2009, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs gave a $1,000,000 donation to the Museum... with the understanding that a true history of the treatment of First Nations people would be on exhibit," the letter says.
The museum found itself in hot water more than a week ago when it became known it was not using the word "genocide" to describe Canada's treatment of aboriginal people. In its own defence, the museum said the decision was reached by senior staff, not the museum's board.
In a statement last month, Murray said although "genocide" would not be in the title of a CMHR aboriginal exhibit, the museum "will be using the term in the exhibit itself when describing community efforts for this recognition. Historical fact and emerging information will be presented to help visitors reach their own conclusions."
However, critics insist federal funding means there is politics at work in the decision. Canada currently recognizes five genocides: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocides and atrocities in Srebrenica, but there is growing academic and activist support for Canada to recognize the country's colonial treatment of aboriginal people as an official genocide.
Asked about the financial contribution to the museum, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said if the same decision were made today, he would have nothing to do with the donation.
"If we had an extra $1 million, we would certainly be putting it toward addressing the ongoing tragedies that continue to plague our people," Nepinak said in an extensive email.
Nepinak, Manitoba's top First Nation's leader, said it's not quite as simple as saying the AMC footed the bill.
In 2009, South Beach Casino gifted the $1 million through the AMC to the museum, which was then deep into a determined effort to push a private fundraising campaign over the top. Aboriginal leaders got tapped along with a lot of other groups.
"I know that at one point in the past, it was suggested that AMC was involved. However, that's not the case under my leadership," Nepinak said, reviewing the decision from a distance of several years. He said he didn't even know about it until a few months ago.
"The reason why it appeared that AMC made the donation of $1 million is beyond me. I suspect it must have been some sort of publicity stunt," he said.
Four years ago, the AMC's grand chief was Ron Evans.
He agreed to act as spokesman because the donation needed a public aboriginal presence beyond the South Beach Casino operators. At the time, Evans described the donation as a way to influence the museum's decisions on aboriginal issues and to educate the public on aboriginal injustices.
A museum spokeswoman declined to comment Friday and referred questions about past fundraising to Friends of the CMHR, which she described as a separate organization.
Since the announcement, the casino has financed the $1-million donation in annual instalments of $100,000. About half has been paid out.
There's no suggestion South Beach Casino won't honour the original deal, aboriginal leaders said.
Even the term genocide is poorly understood. Like aboriginal leaders, the United Nations defines genocide in terms broader than the physical extermination of a race of people.
Nepinak said there's more than enough evidence to support the claim of genocide against aboriginal people in Canada.
"I have argued in various capacities that there have been many forms of genocide over the history of our relationship with settler-society governments," Nepinak said in his email.
In a phone interview, he said he's under pressure to reopen the debate over the donation and thinks it's probably time to do so.
"I am prepared to undertake that work amongst a tribunal of credible and reasonable adjudicators whose opinions matter throughout the world," Nepinak said.
"I wholeheartedly believe genocide happened, and it is happening as we speak."
Should donors and government have a say in what appears in the museum? Join the conversation in the comments below.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2013 A3