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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 ...

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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