CMHR a symbol for dissent and protest


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Former Irish prime minister Mary Robinson, who served as the UN's human rights chief, once said human rights offer us a vocabulary of both complaint and inspiration.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/09/2014 (3105 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Former Irish prime minister Mary Robinson, who served as the UN’s human rights chief, once said human rights offer us a vocabulary of both complaint and inspiration.

She could just as well have been describing the tumultuous trajectory of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and its inaugural week.

Sitting in the rain during the opening ceremony, I was struck by how everything around me served to underscore the push and pull of protest and praise.

There was a Toronto Star op-ed arguing against a human rights museum in a world — or at least in Winnipeg — that still contains so much poverty and unhappiness.

A volunteer called Gerry, who had recently returned to Winnipeg told me that for him, the museum offered not only a fantastic visitor experience, but also the opportunity to connect to a new community.

Before us, dignitaries, officials, elders and singers raised their voices to bless the building and commemorate its opening.

Behind us, protesters from Idle No More and anti-abortion groups called out for justice and objected to a celebration while the Red River was being dragged for missing and murdered women.

One protester shouted Winnipeg’s roads were the worst in Canada (clearly, this person had never been to Montreal).

Above us, surveillance helicopters buzzed. Police were stationed on the perimeters so peaceful assemblies stayed that way.

Some protesters were so close to the ceremony they almost shouted down the speakers.

All of this is as it should have been.

So much of what the museum stands for has been achieved through protest and dissent.

At the museum’s human rights advisory council where I served, we struggled with how and even whether the complex narratives of human rights that occupy so much of our collective working lives could or should be transformed into exhibits. And yet, together with thousands of people who contributed to this museum in so many ways, we were all working to build something no one had ever built before.

The road map, such as it was, seemed to reveal itself only in maddeningly small millimetres. Sure, stakeholders, activists and scholars complain — many with good reason — their advice has not been taken on board.

The museum has learned hell hath no fury like an expert scorned.

And yet, if the inspiration of human rights was to have traction, the museum had to open its ears and its galleries to stories from a constellation of Canadians. This is a newer idea for museums, integrating diverse perspectives into the rarified knowledge of scholars. It is an open idea that has to be negotiated with the expectations of donors and politicians.

No one wanted a superficial story of redemption and happy endings, because that would be a lie. No one wanted a big house of horrors, either.

The museum has navigated the shoals of these disparate forces by telling the tough stories and justly celebrating the many courageous people who have stood up for human rights.

No doubt, there are more complaints to come. But there is also inspiration.

Thousands of teachers will receive training and curriculum support this year from museum staff. Human rights education specialists such as Canada’s own Equitas, will partner with the museum to leverage the training for up to 60,000 kids.

Teenagers such as my daughter will not only know about U.S. civil rights icons such as Rosa Parks, but also about Viola Desmond, the first black woman to challenge racism before the courts in this country.

Ashley MacIsaac got it exactly right during Saturday’s opening concert at The Forks: We should congratulate Winnipeg and Canada for this new extraordinary human rights museum and everything it stands for. But we should not forget many Canadians are still struggling for their human rights.

The tensions between these two statements offer a delicate but critical fulcrum for the museum and for all of us, constantly serving to set and reset the balance between complaint and inspiration.

And that is exactly as it should be.

Pearl Eliadis is a human rights lawyer and teaches civil liberties at McGill University’s faculty of law. She served on the Human Rights Advisory Council of the museum. She recently published Speaking Out on Human Rights: Debating Canada’s Human Rights System.

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