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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 ...

Enter Stephen Harper. When the history of the Harper government is written, its dedication to human rights at home and abroad will probably not figure prominently, with one notable exception: the fight against anti-Semitism. Few governments in the world have been more outspoken in decrying what Immigration Minister Jason Kenney calls the “new anti-Semitism,” which manifests itself primarily in attacks against Israel and is “even more dangerous than the old European anti-Semitism.” And one of the most effective tools in fighting anti-Semitism, according to Mr. Kenney, is “to teach future generations the lessons of the Holocaust and help prevent future acts of genocide.” A human-rights museum with a major Holocaust presence would fit nicely into that agenda.

But that wasn't the only thing that appealed to Mr. Harper when Ms. Asper came calling. (Mr. Asper had died in 2003). Building an important new federal institution in Winnipeg was attractive to a prime minister who had campaigned on a promise to decentralize government, and who had demanded that “the West wants in.” And with private donors committing to nearly half of the construction costs, this was the kind of private-public partnership that could serve as a model for future projects.

And there was one other benefit. Some kind of national memorial to the Holocaust had been a long-standing dream for Canada's Jewish community. Being seen as the man who made that happen could go a long way toward uncoupling Jewish money and votes from their traditional home in the Liberal Party.

In 2007, Mr. Harper agreed that the federal government would contribute $100-million to help build the museum. It would also cover its annual operating costs of $22-million a year, based on revenues generated by an optimistically projected 250,000 visitors a year – about the same number as the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles attracts.

But there was still the vexing question of what exactly the museum was about. What are human rights? The term has really been in common use only since the end of the Second World War. In 1948, the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights had declared that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

But individual human rights are often at odds with society's collective rights, and can these rights really be applied to everyone everywhere? And how do you tell stories about human rights and wrongs inside the walls of a museum?

Wading into the struggle for human rights in Canada and around the world is politically perilous. It is easy to get people to agree that war is hell or that genocide is evil; it's much harder to find consensus on the right to marry whom you want to marry, or choose to practise or not practise a particular religion. Mr. Chrétien may have been right. It's difficult to see how the CMHR can become a centre for human-rights activism while maintaining the strict neutrality demanded by a national museum.

It's not uncommon today for museums to find themselves in the crosshairs of controversy. In 1989, an exhibit called Into the Heart of Africa at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum was attacked as racist and the curators were criticized for inadequate consultation with the black community.

In the 1990s, curators at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington were forced to cancel an exhibit featuring the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima because veterans groups and politicians disliked the fact that the exhibit highlighted the horrible consequences to Japan's civilian population.

Similar forces were at work in 2007, when the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa discovered just how carefully a federal museum needs to tread. Complaints by some veterans groups about a 60-word description of the Allied bombing of German cities in the Second World War led to Senate hearings that ultimately resulted in the museum changing the wording of the exhibit.

Given the sensitivity of many of the topics it will be dealing with, it's not hard to imagine similar controversies engulfing the CMHR if it dares tread on the toes of domestic lobby groups or foreign governments. Mr. Granatsein, the war museum's former director, thinks that the scrupulous neutrality required of a national museum will ultimately prove to be incompatible with the CMHR's ambition to be a world leader in the fight for human rights.

“They will say things about government-approved atrocities like the Somalis starving their own people, and that will be okay,” he predicts. “But if it's China doing terrible things, and we want to encourage trade with China, they won't say a whisper. There will be one occasion where they will say that the Chinese are awful and they're doing terrible things, and somebody in Ottawa will phone up and say, ‘Will you shut up,' and they won't do it again.”

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