True to Izzy’s vision

Museum raises challenging questions, with complex answers


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Until today, there have always been more questions than answers about the content of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/08/2014 (3102 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Until today, there have always been more questions than answers about the content of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Some broad descriptions of the content contained in the museum’s 11 galleries have leaked out over the years. But for the most part, we’ve only got disconnected bits and pieces.

That hasn’t stopped the protests, letter-writing campaigns and media condemnations, many of them featuring a torrent of semantic hair-splitting.

Peter J. Thompson / National Post Files Izzy Asper

However, with part of the museum opening this weekend (all 11 galleries will be available for public viewing Sept. 27) we are finally, mercifully able to answer some questions that have dogged the CMHR.

First and foremost, it is rigorously faithful to the vision laid out in founder Israel Asper’s 2000 concept document, which envisioned an institution to inform and educate visitors on the highest ideals of human rights. Not to condemn, or push a political agenda, or to disparage any particular group. It was supposed to be a place to learn principles and apply them to the real world.

Does the museum live up to that lofty goal? Opinions will vary, but after media were allowed this week to tour the museum’s galleries — many of which are works in progress — there is evidence the museum is what it was intended to be: an examination of the good, bad and ugly of human rights.

It is impossible at this stage to answer all the questions swirling around the museum. Some, however, can be answered now.

Is it critical of the Canadian government, past and present? The museum takes a critical, comprehensive look at Canada’s human-rights record, and much of it is ugly. From the internment of Japanese- and Ukrainian-Canadians, to the residential schools experiment, there has been no obvious attempt to diminish the graphic details of what Canadians have done to their fellow citizens through history.

The images of the Canadian victims of human-rights violations are abundant and often disturbing, confirming that in the long list of nations that have abused human rights, Canada is very much present.

Is it just a Holocaust museum in disguise? Absolutely not. The Holocaust is the subject of a gallery that has, at its centre, a film on Canada’s response to this genocide, including our failure to accept Jewish refugees attempting to flee the Nazis.

This gallery, as promised, focuses not on the atrocity per se, but on how the Nazis used legal means to galvanize their genocidal policies. And how the Holocaust directly resulted in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, the first attempt to codify in international law the principle that no country can pass laws to dehumanize any group of citizens.

What about the Holodomor? The forced starvation of Ukrainians is well-represented in the museum, with a dedicated theatre and abundant content. A gallery on genocide features, at its entrance, a bronze sculpture commemorating the victims of this atrocity. Also evident is the fact the museum is promoting with partners Holodomor research and education world-wide.

Will it be fair and objective? This is the one question that will continue to spark the most debate.

The default position of the museum is stridently progressive. That factor alone will lead many to conclude it is biased and ignores the sentiments of many Canadians.

For example, in one gallery visitors will view videos depicting forceful pro-life and pro-choice arguments. The videos appear on screens above a circular table with digital tablets that allow visitors, upon completion of the videos, to vote on the issue — for or against.

John Woods / THE CANADIAN PRESS The Hall Of Hope in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

It’s all fair save for the fact the subject of that exhibit is called The Safety of Women. It is a reference to the 1988 Supreme Court decision that found using the Criminal Code to deny a woman’s access to safe abortion services violates her rights to “security of the person” under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The exhibit is factually accurate, and unfailingly fair. Having said that, the title of the exhibit leaves no doubt the museum is celebrating the SCOC decision as a victory for human rights. That alone will be viewed as offensive by those who condemn abortion.

In another gallery, visitors will see an interactive digital table with a children’s game that encourages players to establish a Gay Straight Alliance support group at their high school.

Many provinces, including Manitoba, have directed schools to support GSAs to protect gay, lesbian and bi-sexual students from bullying. Some religious leaders have objected, arguing forcing them to host GSAs violates their right to religious freedom.

The museum currently contains no content on objections to GSAs, or the argument their existence violates religious freedoms. A museum spokeswoman said, however, during the next year, there will be an exhibit featuring stories where individual rights are in conflict, and the GSA debate is surely to be represented at that time.

Opening the CMHR should answer many questions, including most of the unfounded ones, about its tone, mandate and disposition.

However, not all questions will be answered because for many of those visiting the museum, there is no single correct answer.

Which was pretty much what Izzy Asper had intended for his museum.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.


Updated on Friday, September 19, 2014 8:52 AM CDT: Adds slideshow, adds video

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