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A critical examination of human rights

Museum must decide if stories are positive or negative

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It was always accepted that somewhere in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the story of Viola Desmond would be told.

Desmond, a Nova Scotia salon owner, was arrested in 1946 for refusing to leave the main floor of a New Glasgow movie theatre, which was open only to whites. She was fined $20 plus $6 in court costs after being charged with fraud by the Nova Scotia government.

As a black woman, the theatre would only sell her a balcony seat. When she insisted on sitting in a more expensive, whites-only main-floor seat, the government argued she had essentially evaded paying an additional cent of tax on the higher-priced ticket.

Desmond failed in her bid to fight the charge. She eventually left Nova Scotia for Montreal and then New York City, where she died in 1965 at the age of 50.

Barely publicized outside Nova Scotia, Desmond's case is considered one of the seminal racial-segregation stories of the 20th century. Desmond received a posthumous pardon for her crime in 2010. Although that could never erase the racism she faced, the pardon is nonetheless considered a victory by human rights activists.

That Desmond's story will be told in the CMHR is without doubt. However, to this point no one is exactly sure how it will be told. This is an important issue, for it is in the question of "how" that we will see the true nature and purpose of the museum.

This was the question at the heart of recent concerns about political manipulation of CMHR content by the board of trustees and perhaps by the federal government itself. The controversy was kicked off by a letter, written by a museum vice-president, in which it is noted the board of trustees had asked that more "positive, optimistic" Canadian stories be added to one gallery. Critics seized upon those words as evidence the board was manipulating content to be less critical.

Again, it was never clear exactly what that meant; the museum was always designed to feature more shocking or disturbing content in its lower-level galleries, with more uplifting content in the upper levels. So, while visitors may be bombarded with acts of inhumanity at lower levels, they would be inspired by stories of triumph and courage in the higher galleries. However, even with the details of the museum's design taken into account, we still have no firm definition of a "positive" and "negative" human rights story.

For example, is Viola Desmond a "positive" or a "critical" story of the Canadian human rights experience? Is her story relevant because she was a champion of black rights, because of the injustice against her, or because ultimately the government of Nova Scotia admitted that injustice?

The same conundrum arises with other prominent Canadian human rights stories. Is the museum going to document the pain and suffering inflicted on aboriginal people by the residential school system, or focus solely on the federal government's decision to formally apologize and offer compensation?

Too much emphasis on the redress, without documenting the underlying injustice, is a manipulation of content.

Moreover, is celebrating the activists who fought to bring attention to the residential school issue a "positive" story, and if so, is that a bad thing? Tough call.

Ottawa has vehemently denied any attempt to dull the edge of the content, but there is no question the Conservative government has expectations. In an interview at the Free Press News Café this fall, Heritage Minister James Moore discussed the simmering conflict between the museum and some in the Ukrainian community.

There have been allegations the museum will underplay the Holodomor, one of the world's least publicized and studied genocides, in favour of content on the Holocaust, the most publicized and studied atrocity in recorded history. The debate over content has been a long, nasty affair that remains, to this day, unresolved. Moore did not offer an opinion directly on the conflict, but he said the museum must not be divisive.

"The museum is not going to be, cannot be, a source of division for this country. Because taxpayers are not going to pump in $21 million a year if they see it as a perpetual source of division for the people of Winnipeg, the people of Manitoba and the people of Canada. It's not going to be tolerated."

Moore's assertion -- that controversy and divisiveness are separate commodities -- raises questions about whether the museum faces a no-win situation. The CMHR will, in many instances, deal with issues that are irreconcilable. These are the very definition of divisive issues, but the museum vision has always argued confronting these issues in a fair and balanced way furthers the cause of human rights.

No one has suggested a journey of that kind would be non-divisive; only that the journey itself was worth taking.

It has always been acknowledged that all the players involved in oversight of the museum -- management, board and the political masters -- would require a certain resolve to hold firm in the face of the anger and contempt that will flow from some of the content decisions.

If the absence of divisiveness is the only measure of success, then the CMHR is headed to a difficult future.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2012 0


Updated on Monday, December 10, 2012 at 6:46 AM CST: Adds art.

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