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Genocide never debated: chief

Sagkeeng leader on museum panel

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Sagkeeng Chief Donavan Fontaine says the issue of an aboriginal genocide 'came up in small circles but never as a formal discussion.'

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Sagkeeng Chief Donavan Fontaine says the issue of an aboriginal genocide 'came up in small circles but never as a formal discussion.'

A chief who was a Canadian Museum for Human Rights adviser says the issue of an aboriginal genocide never came up during discussions with museum officials.

Sagkeeng Chief Donavan Fontaine said he decided to speak out after following debate on the museum's decision not to use the word genocide in the title of its aboriginal exhibit.

In 2009-10, Fontaine said he was one of two aboriginals on an advisory body for the museum that was chaired by former Montreal Canadiens president Ronald Corey. Fontaine represented the Treaty One First Nations because the museum site at The Forks sits on traditional Treaty One lands.

"The issue (of an aboriginal genocide) came up in small circles but never as a formal discussion. It was too soon in the process, some felt. The concrete hadn't been poured yet. Fundraising was the main objective," Fontaine said.

After a few meetings, Fontaine said, he was never called back. "Our committee slowly became defunct."

He said he supports the $1-million donation made by the South Beach Casino on behalf of Manitoba First Nations. But he also said it was never intended to buy influence. "One-million dollars doesn't buy influence. Ten million wouldn't either. That's not the issue."

The tenure of the committee was so short that museum staff, while not disputing Fontaine, said they could find no record of the committee.

Canada recognizes five genocides and an aboriginal one is not one of them.

As much as he supported the museum, Fontaine said he's disappointed it hasn't lived up to its promise to represent aboriginal reality in Canada.

"Other ethnic groups get to tell their true history and we don't, despite the museum being on sacred and very historically significant land for our people? Something's not right," Fontaine said.

There's more than one way to exterminate a race of people and even the United Nations definition of genocide makes that clear, Fontaine said.

Under the UN definition, what happened to aboriginal people here can't be anything but a genocide, he said.

"Which aboriginal experts and advisers did the museum consult with?" he asked. "You have all these academic experts, all these educated people to advise them and they can't match a definition? It's obvious. They should be able to see that," he said.

Fontaine sketched out a dual process since Confederation, with one process leading to historic treaties and another concurrent process leading to assimilation and genocide. Residential schools are the best-known example but there are others, including federal underfunding for basic services.

"Some people miss the point. They talk about the money and reserve lands we get and ask how can that be genocide. But that's due to the treaties. The reason for the genocide was to get rid of the treaties and the people in the first place. That's the definition of the Indian problem. That's still the policy. Tell me it isn't happening today with health and education funding that's been slashed and capped since 1996," Fontaine said.

In response to Fontaine's criticism, museum spokeswoman Maureen Fitzhenry reiterated the institution's efforts to seek aboriginal advice.

"We deeply value and respect the advice we have received from members of the aboriginal community, which has been solicited and received in many different ways. In every gallery of our museum, we will portray human rights stories of indigenous peoples -- not only violations, but also efforts to resist and contributions to human rights," Fitzhenry said.

"To clarify once more -- we are, in fact, using the word genocide -- just not as a title in a specific gallery's attract-wall projection. A number of exhibits address the general and specific issue of genocide, including community efforts in Canada to gain that recognition for the treatment of aboriginal people, as well as a detailed examination of (Polish Jewish lawyer) Raphael Lemkin's concept of genocide and his analysis about colonization as genocide."

If the museum were to use the word genocide, it would make a declaration it has no right to make, she said.

"It is not our role to make a declaration of genocide, but to provide historical fact and emerging information -- based on rigorous research and expert and community advice -- that will help visitors draw their own conclusions," Fitzhenry said.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 9, 2013 A4

History

Updated on Friday, August 9, 2013 at 7:53 AM CDT: Change picrture

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