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Museum's burden is hefty

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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

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If the Canadian Museum for Human Rights presents the facts about Canada's treatment of aboriginals, it will have done its job, whether or not the stories are labelled as genocide.

The real question is what have Canadians learned from the past and what does the aboriginal experience tell us about human rights?

The CMHR is not a genocide museum, even though a significant portion of its content will deal with the consequences of racism. Its goal is to educate and to motivate visitors to reflect on their attitudes and prejudices in the hope they will become better, more tolerant citizens.

That doesn't mean there aren't legitimate concerns about the museum's independence, but the genocide debate is probably not the best example of this challenge, nor the last.

The problem with the word genocide is that its meaning is imprecise and even tainted by political interference. Under the UN's legal definition, aboriginals have unquestionably been victims of genocide.

Among other things, the UN says it is a crime of genocide to inflict "mental harm" on a group "in whole or in part." Under this definition, it's hard to imagine a group in society that was not the victim of genocide at some time in the past.

The UN definition excludes political groups because, when it was written in 1948, the Soviet Union objected to including parties and unions because it had a history of imprisoning or murdering members of such organizations.

Canada's recognition of five genocides out of hundreds is also partly political. Why, for example, are the crimes in Bosnia in the 1990s included and the 1915 Armenian massacre, but not the slaughter in Cambodia or even the British treatment of the Irish, who lost their ancestral language as a result of centuries of oppression.

The answer isn't clear, but human rights lawyer David Matas has suggested its partly related to the squeaky-wheel syndrome.

Which brings us to the aboriginal question. There is no doubt Canada's First Nations people were victims of cultural genocide, even though the UN definition acknowledges no qualifications. There is only genocide, with no degree of separation between cultural and physical extermination.

Many academics and aboriginals claim various federal policies were designed to kill aboriginals through starvation, disease, neglect or other means. This interpretation, however, requires more research and public education before anyone in government or the museum is going to declare an aboriginal genocide, a designation that could theoretically result in criminal prosecutions.

The museum is approaching the complex issue in the right way, but its position has nevertheless raised widespread concerns about whether its approach is professional or politically motivated.

There is ample precedent for worry. The Canadian War Museum, for example, bent to political pressure when it altered the words on a display about the Allied bombing offensive during the Second World War because veterans complained. The Canadian Science and Technology Museum was pressured by then heritage minister James Moore to take down an exhibit on the science of sex and sexuality, but the museum stood firm.

The CMHR is dealing with much more controversial content, which will make it difficult for politicians to keep their noses out of it.

The problem was recognized from the beginning, which is why a federal advisory committee recommended five years ago that the museum be governed independently from the government. In the end, there is no way to eliminate the risk of political interference, except to hope politicians will act appropriately, or be exposed when they do not.

The museum, too, must stand its ground, or risk losing the confidence of the general public and, in particular, the groups whose stories will be at the centre of its work. Its success depends on maintaining a reputation for integrity, and doing the right thing, even when it puts noses out of joint.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 30, 2013 A8

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