WINNIPEG — Canada’s First Nations are challenging the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) over its use of the term “genocide,” and it’s generating a welcome discussion, says Maureen Fitzhenry, the soon-to-be-opened museum’s media relations’ manager.
“This is the whole point of the museum: to raise awareness and promote discussion of human rights issues such as genocide,” Fitzhenry said. “It may be that a lot of people haven’t given much thought as to what genocide is.”
She was responding to a controversy sparked by a letter last month from a prominent Manitoba Aboriginal organization that criticized the Winnipeg museum for not using the term “genocide” to refer to Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal People.
The letter came from Grand Chief Murray Clearsky of the Southern Chiefs Organization. It also noted that the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs pledged $1 million toward the construction of the $310-million facility, which is officially a federal museum but is being funded by donations and grants from all three levels of government.
Clearsky said the donation was made “with the understanding that a true treatment of First Nations would be on exhibit.”
In a statement, CEO Stuart Murray said that the museum “will examine the gross and systemic human rights violation of Indigenous peoples,” but he added: “We have chosen, at present, not to use the word ‘genocide’ in the title for one of the exhibits about this experience, but will be using the term in the exhibit itself when describing community efforts for this recognition.”
Currently, the museum is officially only applying the term “genocide” to five specific events – the Holocaust, the World War I Armenian genocide committed by the Turks, the 1930s Ukrainian Holodomyr, the mass murders in Rwanda in the mid-1990s and the killing in 1995 of an estimated 8,000 or more Bosnian Muslims from the town of Srebenica by Serb irregular forces in that area’s civil war.
Aboriginal activists often use the term genocide to describe the mass deaths of native peoples in the Americas from foreign diseases and at the hands of European colonists, as well as efforts to herd Aboriginal Peoples onto reserves and erase their identities in places such as Canada’s residential school system.
What has made the CMHR a lightning rod for criticism from ethnic communities such as First Nations people, Fitzhenry said, is that “it is a difficult thing for most people to wrap their heads around the idea that the CMHR is not a museum built around displays of collections or photos and what should and shouldn’t be included in the collection. This museum is based on the idea of human rights and telling the stories of peoples’ struggles.
“We are sensitive to the concerns of our stakeholders,” she added. “We welcome the opportunity to continue our dialogue with the Aboriginal community. We appreciate how media coverage of this issue has captured the attention of the public at large and focused peoples’ thoughts on how Canada has treated its Aboriginal People over the years.”
On the other hand, Fitzhenry said the federal government doesn’t officially recognize that treatment as genocide, and since the CMHR is federally funded, it’s not in a position to determine what constitutes genocide and doesn’t plan to use the term in the title of the exhibit.
“We are not happy that people are upset about this issue, but we hope that value will come out of this,” Fitzhenry said.
The museum is slated to open in the fall of 2014. The physical structure has been completed, but the programming is still being worked out, she said.
First Nations groups haven’t been the only ones raising concerns lately about the museum’s content.
Earlier this month, B’nai Brith Canada criticized the decision to exclude material on the establishment of the State of Israel in the museum’s Holocaust exhibits, saying that the Shoah teaches crucial lessons about human rights.
“The question is not whether the establishment of the State of Israel is part of the historical aspect of the Holocaust, rather whether the human rights lessons which flow from the Holocaust include the creation of the State of Israel,” said David Matas, B’nai Brith’s senior legal counsel.
“The answer to that question is clearly yes, since to come to grips with the human rights lessons of the Holocaust means addressing the establishment of the State of Israel.”