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This 1914 photo shows Sikh refugees turned away by the Canadian government.
This 1914 photo shows Sikh refugees turned away by the Canadian government.


It takes a lot of wrongs to make a museum of rights Add to ...

Jennifer looks nervously at the strangers around the table and says she is almost afraid to tell them what she is thinking.

The teacher in her early 30s, who works with students with learning disabilities at an all-girls school (she requested The Globe and Mail withhold her last name), is one of more than 100 people who have come to a Toronto convention centre this evening to talk about what they want - and don't want - from the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights when it opens in 2012.

She's sitting with a trio of refugees from Guatemala, a retired teacher whose family was once interned in Austrian-controlled Ukraine and a museum-sciences student who is a former Oxfam volunteer.

She musters her courage and tells them that although she considers herself a feminist, she disagrees with giving women the right to have abortions. "I think the voice of someone like myself often gets shut out," she says.

To Jennifer, a fetus is a person, with his or her own human rights - and she is hoping the new museum will provide a serious forum to discuss them.

So far, abortion isn't high on the CMHR's tentative topic list. But what is already pencilled in is nearly as contentious, from the abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools and the wartime internment of Japanese Canadians to violence against women.

In principle, there's no reason abortion should be left out: What is the argument about if not who has what rights and how to protect them? But imagine the outcry that might arise if even a corner of a government-sponsored museum were devoted to exploring that question.

More plausibly, what will happen when it addresses what happened to Armenians under the Ottoman Empire?

Canada and 19 other nations, along with many international scholarly associations, officially recognize the campaign of forced marches, massacres and abuse that began in 1915 as amounting to genocide. The Republic of Turkey and many Turkish expatriates, including in Canada, strenuously disagree. Every newspaper editor knows that stories on the subject lead to onslaughts of enraged letters. Memorials are met by protests and counter-protests.

That's the challenge facing a museum whose mandate is to grapple almost entirely with the world's touchiest subjects.

"It is a museum of ideas. And ideas, of course, are never static," says Yude Henteleff, the chair of the museum's Content Advisory Committee.

If human rights are a human construction, a set of collective ideas, then the public view of them will be forever shifting, amorphous and vulnerable to attack. And a museum that tries to document that process on its walls promises to have its combustible moments.

Some groups of people will feel shut out if their causes are not included. Others are sure to accuse the museum of imbalance in the exhibitions it does mount.

[It]has to have not just exhibits … but also a flavour of providing spaces for people to rest, reflect, talk, think, meet people. Victoria Dickenson, Chief Knowledge Officer - that is, curator - of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Jennifer's session was part of a 12-month, cross-Canada consulting tour by the museum's content committee, a group of 17 specialists and human-rights experts. It's trying to put out fires in advance, though it can't douse them all.

The committee is also looking at how prickly issues are handled at places such as the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Most of those institutions focus on specific issues or communities, while the CMHR promises to be "the most comprehensive human-rights museum in the world."

It was the dream of the late CanWest founder Izzy Asper, the son of Jewish-Ukrainian émigrés, and was brought to fruition by his daughter, Gail. In 2008, the private project became a federal Crown corporation, and a substantial part of its $310-million budget is made up of federal and provincial funds. The project broke ground last year at The Forks in Winnipeg, a locale backers have dubbed, a bit hopefully, "the heart of the North American continent."

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