Among the supporters of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), 2011 was a year of controversies that shook the architecturally-daring structure to its foundation. Not only was its opening delayed by at least another year, but its projected construction cost rose from $265 million in 2007 to $310 million in 2009 and then an anticipated $351 million last year with the prospect of no further funding from the federal government. To cap the year off, some media commentators began to refer to the first national museum located outside Ottawa-Hull as a “white elephant.”
And, of course, there is ongoing lobbying by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) which wants the Holodomor (“death by hunger”) as a permanent gallery with the same display space as the Holocaust, which with the aboriginal experience in Canada has been designated as the two permanent galleries in the museum.
“The Holodomor is an important lens through which th world can learn about the crimes of communism and human rights abuses of dictatorial regimes like that of Joseph Stalin,” said UCC president Paul Grod in a press release. “Furthermore, we can learn from Canada’s First World War internment operations how and why civil liberties were taken from early immigrants to ensure that similar human rights abuses are not repeated.”
It is estimated that as many as five million Ukrainians perished through starvation when Stalin forced landowners onto collective farms. His ultimate purpose was to destroy Ukrainian nationalism. During the First World War, thousands of Ukrainian-Canadians were deemed enemy aliens and were interned (some were later deported), which was also the fate meted out to the vast majority of Japanese-Canadians and many Italian-Canadians during the Second World War.
At the end of 2011, the UCC renewed its call for an independent review of the CMHR’s content and design and the suspension of incremental funding by the federal government.
So far, the museum has been steadfast in its assertion that the Holocaust provides the best documentation for human rights abuse and state-sanctioned genocide. Actually, it’s hard not to accept this argument. There may have been numerous cases of mass murders in countries such as Ukraine, Rwanda, Cambodia, Turkey (Armenians during the First World War) and the “ethnic cleansings” in the Balkans, but the Holocaust does provide the best documented example of how a supposedly “civilized” Western nation can turn into a monster state intent upon eradicating an entire people from the face of the Earth.
The first step toward mass murder by Hitler and his Nazi henchmen was the boycotting of Jewish businesses and the removal of their rights through a succession of new laws, including the 1935 Nuremburg Laws (Racial Laws). It was only through incremental steps that Jews could be singled out for “special treatment.” Once the war began, Jews were shot by death squads in occupied countries, ghettoes were created to imprison them, they were worked to death as slaves, and by 1942, subjected to an institutionalized extermination process in concentration camps, the “final solution of the Jewish question,” as stated by the Nazi leadership.
How the Nazis were able to lead a cultured people to accept, or at least ignore, genocide in their midst is one of the profound questions of the ages. The simple answer is that “they could,” while the deeper explanation is that it took time and many steps to create the necessary conditions that inevitably led to mass murder.
Learning about the Holocaust should by necessity be included in a human rights museum, and such an example will in no way detract from the lessons that can also be learned from the abuses heaped upon people in other regions of the world. The 12 galleries are just one aspect of the museum, the weight of which has been unduly stressed to the distraction from the museum’s underlining purpose — teaching Canadians and the world about human rights. Special emphasis has been made upon bringing youth from across the globe to the museum to learn about the importance of human rights in a world where such rights are often the subject of abuse.
When he announced further federal funding for the museum ($22 million annually for its operation), Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: “Rights only flourish in free and democratic societies like Canada. where the principles of fairness, pluralism, and justice are embedded in the history of the country and the values of its people, as well as the laws of their governments.”
The 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is an example other nations seek to emulate, enshrines our sense of justice and the fair treatment that must be accorded to all Canadians. That Canada has such a document is a solid reason for it being home to a rights museum, but it took this nation many years and numerous experiments to develop the charter. Canada has not always been a bastion of human rights for all — its treatment of aboriginals, Ukrainians, Japanese, blacks and other groups has not always been exemplary, but through recognition of past transgressions and the lessons that they taught, the necessary measures were taken to begin the process that eventually led to enshrining the rights of all Canadians.
“The museum will pay tribute to past human rights successes, while helping to educate and teach us about the struggles of today and tomorrow,” said former Manitoba Premier Gary Doer.
“Never before has there been a collaboration of this scale to develop a national museum,” added Harper. “But if ever there were a Canadian cultural institution suited for a private-public partnership, it is this one, because human rights can never be the exclusive preserve of the state.”
Private donations now total some $130 million, which is just $20 million short of the original objective. The museum has been deemed so important that REALTORS® across the nation have thus far committed $1.66 million in donations, with Sheldon Zamick, the WinnipegREALTOR® museum campaign chair, seeking an even greater commitment for the “worthwhile” project.
Gail Asper, the CMHR’s national campaign chair, termed the effort by REALTORS® “absolutely amazing” during a “stressful” period. She said it was comforting to know that people believed in the cause and are willing to invest, which helps to send a message to the federal government that Canadians want the museum to open.
As with any project of its magnitude, there will always be detractors, but in the end it is no white elephant. Instead, it should be regarded as a valuable addition to our city, while its benefits as an educational centre will transcend the borders of our city, province and nation.