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

Construction continues at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press/Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press

It all began with the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

In May, 2000, Gail Asper was standing in line at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., waiting to see the historic document. She was accompanied by a group of Grade 9 students. The money for the trip was provided by the Asper family charitable foundation, controlled by her late father, Izzy, then the chief executive officer of Canwest Global, Canada's largest media empire.

Mr. Asper thought that Jewish children in Winnipeg needed to learn more about the Holocaust. So he conscripted his daughter, a lawyer, to organize trips to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Then he thought the students also needed to know more about human rights, so they added a few more stops on to the Washington itinerary. Which is how Ms. Asper found herself standing in line to see the Declaration of Independence.

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"The lineup to see the Declaration of Independence is like a Disneyland lineup," she recalls, "and we're standing in this ridiculous lineup and I'm thinking, 'Why are we doing this? What do these kids know about the Canadian Charter?' So I start talking to these Grade 9 students and they know nothing about the Charter, but they all know, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident.' So I go back and I tell my dad that we need to make this a Canadian trip."

The only problem was there was nowhere in Canada to take kids where they could learn about the Holocaust, or human rights, or even see the Charter on display.

Mr. Asper wasn't happy about that. He had been a lifelong crusader for human rights. On Oct. 14 1971, his first day as leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party, he had proposed a provincial bill of rights.

Thirty years later, he declared that he would build a museum that would tell the story of the Holocaust and the struggle for human rights in Canada and elsewhere, and oh yes, it would be in Winnipeg, because that was where the Aspers lived, and who said every museum in this country had to be in Ottawa?

What could possibly go wrong? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

"It's a can of worms," declares historian J.L. Granatstein, the former head of the Canadian War Museum. "It's the triumph of hope over reality. It's simply not thinking through the difficulties of this sort of project."

So you want to build a museum of human rights? You'll need lots of money, and you'll need to figure out what exactly you want to say in your museum, and how you're going to say it. Surprisingly, the money is the easy part.

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"We could have done a big-box Wal-Mart for $14-million," Gail Asper explains, "but beauty is important to show respect to citizens and to the subject matter." She's sitting in the museum's temporary office space in a government of Canada building in downtown Winnipeg, a few blocks from where her $310-million "cathedral to freedom" is taking shape. There is nothing big-box about it. An international architectural competition yielded a bold design by American Antoine Predock. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is all swooping curves and odd angles and towers, shrouded in 750 square metres of glazed glass specially manufactured in Germany. The glass is supposed to represent two dove wings caressing the building. Located at the historic forks of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, it will inject some badly needed drama into Winnipeg's architectural scene.

With two years to go, there's no guarantee that $310-million will be enough to finish the job. Roughly half of the money will come from private donations. So far, the Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights have raised $125-million of the $150-million they need. The Asper Foundation kicked in $20-million. About 6,000 other donors have contributed the rest.

The remaining money will come from taxpayers; $100-million from the federal government, $40-million from the province and $20-million from the city of Winnipeg.

The Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin had pledged money to help build the museum, but weren't prepared to cover the costs of running it. Mr. Chrétien was uncomfortable with the idea of a federal agency being responsible for telling the story of human rights. There would be too much opportunity for stories to be whitewashed to suit the prevailing political winds of the day.

But without a government pledge to cover the operating costs, there would be no museum.

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.

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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."

The person taking that phone call at the CMHR will not be Gail Asper. Still a member of the board, and its most enthusiastic fundraiser, Ms. Asper no longer officially speaks for the museum.

The new voice of the CMHR is Stuart Murray, who was named president and CEO by the Prime Minister in 2009. He has no background in human rights or museums, but he was the leader of the Conservative Party of Manitoba from 2000 to 2006.

Mr. Murray says the board hasn't really discussed how it will navigate through those potentially choppy waters, but he fully expects that "controversy will be the first person to come to our door every day in this museum." Two years before those doors even open, trouble has already arrived.

A Tower of Babel

In 2009, the museum established a content advisory committee comprising primarily human-rights lawyers and activists. They were asked to report back about what Canadians wanted to see in a human-rights museum. And they were looking for stories for a museum where stories will be the primary artifacts.

From May, 2009, to February 2010, the committee travelled to every province and territory, hearing from thousands of people, collecting stories about human-rights abuses in Canada and elsewhere, and gathering suggestions about the museum.

In an age when "tell us your story" has become the mantra of every media outlet and public institution, and in a country where multiculturalism requires that every story be treated with equal reverence and respect, it was probably inevitable that the museum needed to "talk to Canadians." But many critics argue that this was an ill-advised initiative, and sowed the seeds for many of the museum's current difficulties. The committee collected stories, ranging from the tragic – Holocaust and residential-school survivors – to the trivial. One woman told of her sadness when she was unable to fulfill her dream of joining the Girl Guides because her parents couldn't afford the uniform. The lesson: Poverty can also be a violation of human rights.

The final report ran to nearly 100 pages of highly empathetic and politically correct rhetoric, and offered 48 recommendations for museum officials to consider.

The museum insists that the committee report is just one of many inputs that it will consider when determining what will be on display and how it will be organized, but historian Michael Marrus believes the museum made a mistake by asking Canadians to tell them what they wanted a human-rights museum to be.

Sitting in his office at the University of Toronto's Massey College, where he is an emeritus professor of Holocaust studies, Prof. Marrus argues that "before you go coast to coast, you have to have a more coherent sense of what you are about, what you are looking for."

He doesn't believe the museum's grievance caravan served any real purpose. "People want to tell their stories: 'How we suffered.' 'How our community suffered.' 'You have no idea how we suffered.' 'Let me tell you how we suffered.' Where does this lead except to a sort of Tower of Babel collection of stories that don't necessarily cohere with one another, that don't have some kind of common thread that will be reflected in the museum?"

Prof. Marrus appeared before the advisory committee, but it appears his advice was not heeded. "I told them, 'You are asking for trouble because you have no way, once you have collected all these stories, of determining which ones you want to represent. How do you tell someone that their story isn't going to be as important as someone else's story?' "

Bitter fight

Of all the advisory committee's recommendations, none has proved more controversial than its suggestion that "the museum should position the Holocaust as a separate zone at the centre of the museum, showing the centrality of the Holocaust in the overall human-rights story."

And yet no recommendation was more predictable. A human-rights museum without a Holocaust gallery would not have been true to Izzy Asper's original vision, and much of the early private fundraising was done under the assumption that the Holocaust would be prominently featured. The problem, as Prof. Marrus predicted, is that other groups with compelling stories want equal billing, especially in a national publicly funded museum. At the head of that line are groups representing the Ukrainian-Canadian community.

In many ways, it's a dispute whose roots go back to the end of the Second World War, when the Canadian government allowed hundreds of veterans of the notorious Ukrainian Galician Division of the Waffen SS to emigrate to Canada. They had been interned and investigated for war crimes by the British government after the war, but were eventually released. Still, the Jewish community in Canada opposed the move, arguing that many division members were responsible for the slaughter of Jews.

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.

A human-rights museum is a bold and important idea for Canada, but this one appears to have fallen victim to a commitment to multiculturalism that divides more than it unites, and fosters long-standing grievances rather than attempting to reconcile them. The dispute over the appropriate level of recognition for the Holodomor is the first of what will probably be many similar battles once the museum finally opens.

And this particular test of wills does not appear to be coming any closer to resolution. Some groups, such as the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Toronto-based International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, are suggesting that the way out of the deadlock is that there be no separate galleries for anyone. All 12 galleries should be "integrated, comparative and thematic."

But that idea is a non-starter for both Jewish groups, which are insisting on a Holocaust gallery, and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, which, so long as the Holocaust is singled out, will settle for nothing less than a separate Holodomor gallery.

The UCC, supported by several other groups representing German and Polish Canadians, has now asked the federal government to intervene. They want a reconstitution of the museum's board, an independent review of the museum's content and the suspension of all funding until the issues of governance and content are resolved.

Their campaign seems to be gaining some traction. Dozens of MPs, including many Conservatives, have publicly called for a separate Holodomor gallery. In March, the government appointed Lindy Ledohowski, a prominent Ukrainian-Canadian academic, to the board, a move Mr. Grod of the UCC called "a very positive sign."

But beyond making board appointments, there's a limit to how much the government is able to do. The Museums Act requires the government to maintain an arm's-length distance. In an e-mail, James Maunder, spokesman for Heritage Minister James Moore, wrote that "we expect the museum to unite Canadians, not divide Canadians. Decisions about exhibits should be arrived at after consultation and with care." There's no indication of what the government might do if it concludes those expectations are not being met.

If you build it

"If I was the government, I'd be on the verge of losing patience with these people," U of T's Michael Marrus says. He doesn't think negotiating over floor space, or seats on the board, or permanent vs. non-permanent exhibits addresses what's really plaguing the CMHR. "The heart of the issue," Prof. Marrus argues, "is what should a museum of human rights really do? A coherent notion of institutional purpose must precede any notion of the Holocaust, the Ukrainian famine, or aboriginal people, and that ain't easy."

He despairs over the divisions the museum has caused in its short life. He believes it needs to go back to square one. "They should get a big, important, thoughtful, open-minded, independent-minded person who will say, 'You know what, I'll take this job, but it's a mess and we've got to rethink this thing.' Absent that, I don't see a way forward."

But with less than two years to go before the museum is scheduled to open, a radical rethink is unlikely and, according to Mr. Murray, unnecessary. He is confident that by opening day, many of the current criticisms will have been addressed, and if not, that's okay too.

"Nobody is sitting here saying, 'Geez, we didn't see this coming,' " he says. "This is part of the iterative process of what human rights is about. We're not here to make people happy. We're here to be authentic historically and present it from a human-rights lens and those people who disagree with that are very welcome to have their opinions heard and we respect that. The power of dialogue is something we want to embrace."

On opening day, Gail Asper says, she will be feeling grateful for the many thousands of Canadians who came together to make the museum happen. And, of course, she'll be thinking of her father. "We'll be bawling our eyes out thinking of him," she says.

And she's not disturbed by the possibility that opening day might also include some protesters. The museum is constructing a large outdoor amphitheatre that could easily accommodate hundreds of sign-waving pickets. "That's where they'll be, and they'll say, 'We don't like your take on this.' We want to encourage good Canadian peaceful, legal, respectful protesting about what goes on in here.

"I probably would be disappointed if there weren't protests."

Ira Basen is a Toronto-based writer and broadcaster.

Editor's Note: The project budget for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights as of 2007 was $265-million. The CMHR is complying with the $310-million budget established in 2008. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article, which has been corrected.

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