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Construction continues at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press/Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press)
Construction continues at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press/Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press)

Human Rights

Memory becomes a minefield at Canada's Museum for Human Rights Add to ...

The issue surfaced again in the 1980s when Jewish groups successfully lobbied the Mulroney government to establish a commission of inquiry under Mr. Justice Jules Deschênes to track down what they claimed were potentially thousands of Nazi war criminals living in Canada. Ukrainian Canadians commission would turn into a witch hunt targeting all former Ukrainian soldiers. The Deschênes Commission ultimately found no evidence to support the claim that Canada was a haven for large numbers of Nazi war criminals.

All of this has helped to foster a profound sense of grievance, articulated endlessly by the Ukrainian-Canadian community's official representatives. By the 1990s, their issue had become a demand for recognition of war crimes perpetrated against Ukrainians. From 1931 to 1933, millions starved to death in a famine deliberately induced by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in an attempt to collectivize Soviet agriculture and stamp out Ukrainian nationalism. The full extent of that horror did not emerge until records became available after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Many people in the Ukrainian-Canadian community wanted the story of the “Holodomor” (Ukrainian for “death by hunger”) to be featured in a new Canadian genocide museum in Ottawa. Meanwhile, Jewish groups were lobbying for a gallery commemorating the Holocaust to be included in the new Canadian War Museum. Neither project garnered much public support.

In Winnipeg, Mr. Asper's idea of a museum for human rights seemed to be the one solution that could satisfy everyone. The Jewish community was already on board, and in a letter to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress in April, 2003, Moe Levy, then the executive director of the Asper Foundation, pledged that the Holodomor would be featured “very clearly, distinctly and permanently” in the new museum, and that “the intent of the museum is not to single out any one group but portray the human costs when human rights are abused.” Based on those assurances, the UCC agreed to back the project.

But when the museum's content advisory committee report was released in May, 2010, not only did it call for a separate Holocaust gallery, it made only one passing reference to the Holodomor. Many Ukrainian Canadians felt that they had been duped.

Since then, museum officials have begun to make public their plans for how the museum's 12 galleries will be filled. The Holocaust will get its own gallery. So, too, will Canadian aboriginal people, arguably the victims of more human-rights abuses than any other group in Canada. The museum has worked hard to win the trust and support of the native community. The committee report is filled with sympathetic references to aboriginal people as victims of colonialism and oppression, and the aboriginal influence will be felt throughout the building. The museum will even include a small outdoor “smudging terrace.” And those efforts have been paying off. Many native groups have donated money to the cause, including $1-million from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

Many Ukrainian Canadians have also donated to the museum, but the community's official representatives remain profoundly unhappy. The Holodomor, along with the three other “genocides” officially recognized by the Canadian government (Armenia, Rwanda and Srebrenica), will be lumped together in one gallery tentatively titled “Breaking the Silence.” It will focus on the struggle of people in those communities to overcome official attempts to deny or minimize those atrocities and bring them to the attention of the world.

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress says that's not good enough. It believes that plan does not reflect the spirit of the 2003 Asper Foundation letter. It is demanding nothing less than a separate gallery dedicated to the Holodomor.

Paul Grod, national president of the UCC, says his group has always understood that the Holocaust would play a significant role in the museum. He insists that “this is not a competition,” but he believes that the Holodomor “is a lens through which to teach an important aspect of the human-rights story, about how a dictatorial state can use food, a basic human right, to control and destroy people.” This, he argues, makes it distinct from the Holocaust, and worthy of equal treatment, not just a few panels and pictures in a gallery alongside other mass atrocities. Stuart Murray doesn't agree. He believes the museum has kept its promise to feature the Holodomor “clearly, distinctly and permanently.”

“This is not a genocide museum, or a discussion over whose genocide was worse,” the museum CEO insists. “It's not a tape-measure museum about whose area is bigger in terms of square footage. This is about learning about human rights, it's about why did this happen, how can we learn, what can we do?”

The Holocaust is the most thoroughly studied genocide in history, he says, and therefore the most useful pedagogically. That justifies its special status within the museum.

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