07 January 2011

Why is the Human Rights Museum creating an atrocity contest?

Scheduled for completion in 2013, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has already initiated its fair share of controversy. The generous funding from all levels of government (over 20 million federal dollars a year will be expended just to maintain it) has exercised some taxpayers who are becoming even more apprehensive as escalating construction costs bump the final tab from $260-million up to $310-million.

As if a financial row wasn't enough, the museum has put the human rights cat among the ethnic pigeons by declaring that only the Holocaust and the Native American displays will have permanent galleries of their own. They should have known that by giving preference to the suffering of two groups, they would be met with challenges from other groups who have suffering of their own to relate. They are, after all, human rights specialists, they must know this much about human nature. And, of course, the challenges are coming.

In December, The Ukrainian Canadian Congress expressed concern that the museum has no plans to have a full exhibit to mark the Holodomor, a genocidal famine that took place in 1930's Ukraine, even though the Holodomor will be displayed permanently in the "Mass Atrocity" zone. The Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association is calling for an independent committee to decide what content will be featured in the museum. The German-Canadian Congress has said it is “alarmed and concerned” about the museum’s dedication of permanent galleries to Holocaust and Canadian aboriginal issues. Congress president Tony Bergmeier calls on the museum to be “inclusive and equitable in its treatment. … No suffering by one group can be more important than the suffering of others.”

The choice of the aboriginal display for a gallery of its own can—arguably—be justified because that, after all, is where human rights violations started in this country, with the theft of the land from its native peoples. Furthermore, it's a Canadian story and the museum is mandated to place special emphasis on Canadian history.

But why the Holocaust? It wasn't a Canadian story. A case for its priority can be made, but then a case can be made for the Atlantic slave trade which cost millions of lives and massive suffering, went on for almost four hundred years, dramatically changed the histories of four continents and the effects are still strongly felt today. No doubt, good cases could be made for other atrocities. And probably will be.

The kind of me-tooism generated by the museum's decision is, to say the least, unbecoming. Unfortunately, unless the choices for permanent galleries are made on objective and clearly established criteria, it is inevitable. The best approach would be to follow the lead of the other 10 galleries which are based on themes. Place the Holocaust and Native American displays in their appropriate theme areas rather than suggesting, as the museum now does by allocating them galleries of their own, that they alone are as important as all other injustices of their kind. This way they could still be preeminent in their respective theme areas but without acrimony. And the museum could do with a great deal less acrimony.


  1. I would suggest that the WW11 Holocaust IS a canadian story, in many different ways. First, we use it as a justification of War. We went to fight the Nazis because they were rounding up the jews et al. Mind you, we developed that line AFTER the fact somewhat. But it is still a very personal story to Canadians who were trying to get their families out, and couldn't. I have a close friend whose father tried over and over as a young man here in Canada to get his mother, younger siblings, aunt here to Canada. No one would help, and they died in Auschwitz. Not surprisingly, her father then led a troubled life, and all his children carry that burden too. BUT, our grandparents and elected officials joked that one was too many, and we pretend to have clean hands. It has become the standard to which other atrocities are measured. Like Niagara Falls. not the biggest, nor the most beautiful, but the most well know for comparitive purposes.

    There will be lots of other opportunities to note how we sat idly by as well, in other atrocities, but I think it is fair, reasonable, and since the holocaust indeed is part of the history of Canada, to include it in the Museum of Human Rights.

  2. It's very obvious that this museum is elevating the Holocaust above any and all other genocides, regardless of the 2003 letter from the Asper foundation promising the Holodomor would be featured permanently and prominently.

    That promise by the Asper Foundation in 2003 was made to the victims of the Holodomor.

    Now the Asper foundation, with their barrel of public money, are running away from this promise.

    The victims of the Holodomor and other genocides should be remembered with the same importance and reverence as those of the Holocaust. Anything less would be disrespectful to the memories of the victims of ALL genocides.

    Shame on Gail Asper and the Asper Foundation. Shame on the museum's committee.

  3. Please see: www.enslavedafricans.blogspot.com