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Architect's rendering of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg
Architect's rendering of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg

Museums

Protest grows over Holocaust 'zone' in Canadian Museum for Human Rights Add to ...

Opposition appears to be intensifying to plans to dedicate a specific "zone" to the Holocaust in the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights, while the museum devotes another, single gallery to covering what could be at least 50 other mass atrocities.

Both the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the Canadian Polish Congress are urging the museum, under construction in Winnipeg and scheduled to open early in 2013, to reconsider what CPC president Teresa Berezowski calls "an inequitable display of what has happened in the world that has gone against human rights."

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The UCC, moreover, wants the Harper government, which established the museum as a self-governing Crown corporation in 2008 and budgeted $100-million toward its $310-million construction, to "suspend any further funding to the museum until [governance issues]are reviewed and addressed in a transparent manner."

Its position was echoed Feb. 3 by the Central and European Council of Canada - it represents three million Canadians of Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Hungarian and Slovak descent, among others - which called for "an embargo on any further or incremental funding" until there's an independent review of the museum's contents and a new board created.

"We are dismayed that the hard lessons learned by our communities … are callously ignored at present," said CECC chair Markus Hess.

"By any measure, this has been one of the biggest lightning-rod issues for our community in a good while," observed Taras Zalusky, executive director of the UCC, the umbrella organization for an estimated 1.2 million Ukrainian Canadians. At the same time, he pooh-poohed the suggestion that the UCC wants to halt the museum's construction. "I don't think having a half-finished white elephant on the Red River is what we're looking for.… We support a human-rights museum, but we want it to be accountable."

Two weeks ago the UCC began a petition campaign to pressure the museum into giving the Holodomor (Stalin's mass starvation of Ukrainians in 1931-32) and the introduction of the War Measures Act (which resulted in the incarceration of almost 6,000 Ukrainian Canadians between 1914 and 1920) "their own galleries." The UCC hopes to get tens of thousands of signatures on its "equity and fairness" petition forms, whereupon they'll be forwarded to MPs for tabling in the House of Commons and consideration by the government. The petition follows a postcard campaign inaugurated late last year by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association which calls on Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore to set up "an independent advisory committee" to determine the CMHR's content.

For its part, the CMHR has confirmed that while it plans to house 12 permanent zones, including one devoted to the Holocaust, another to Canada's first nations and another called "mass atrocity," content for all zones remains very much a work in progress involving widespread consultation. Officials have argued the CMHR isn't so much an artifacts-based or "memorializing" institution as one devoted to ideas about, and the practice of, human rights. If the Holocaust has its own permanent space, it's largely because that genocide - a term coined in the mid-1940s by the Polish lawyer and Jew Raphael Lemkin - spurred the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, wellspring of the modern human-rights debate and movement.

However, the Polish congress is upset that for the mass atrocity zone to cover its subject, it will have to do so on "a rotary basis," said Berezowski. Having "a separate, permanent room that says 'the Holocaust' leaves you questioning what the value is of all the other people who died otherwise ... Without minimizing the Holocaust, we just feel that whole idea of 'mass atrocities' has to be rethought and perhaps have a larger display area in which the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Armenian genocide, those things, [are]part and parcel of that," she said.

Two weeks ago in a letter to CMHR president Stuart Murray (and copied to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, among others), Berezowski said the CPC is "hopeful" that if the mass atrocity zone comes to pass, "a central focus" will be the sufferings inflicted on Poles by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, "as well as on other Eastern Europeans." Earlier this week, the CPC decided to initiate its own petition campaign using language similar to that in the UCC appeal.

Meanwhile, George Shirinian, an Armenian-Canadian scholar and executive director of the International Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies, agrees the Holocaust, as "the best-known and best-documented genocide, is central to any study of genocide" - but it's "not the whole story, so, from that perspective, I would agree with members" of the CPC and UCC. Indeed, Shirinian argued, "genocide scholars widely recognize" the Armenian genocide, which claimed more than 1.5 million lives in 1915 Turkey, as the "precursor and prototype of modern genocide." Therefore, it requires "special attention."

If the CMHR's primary raisons d'être are education and prevention, "there can very well be a separate, standalone zone for the Holocaust," Shirinian observed, "and there can just as easily be one for the Armenians and another one for any other case you mention, as long as there's something to tie them all together because there are commonalities that make this whole study valid." The challenge for the CMHR is to take "a much more holistic view of the very large and complex phenomenon" that is genocide while "giving much more space to all those other peoples who are feeling left out."

 

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