Recently, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened in Winnipeg. It is the first national museum built outside of Ottawa and the only one in the world that is dedicated solely to human rights. The museum was originally envisioned and supported by the late Israel and Babs Asper. Governments (federal, provincial and municipal), individuals and other organizations have provided additional funding and support. it is the first national museum built outside of Ottawa and the only one in the world that is dedicated solely to human rights. The museum contains exhibits pertaining to both modern and ancient examples of human rights documents. Current galleries include: What Are Human Rights? Indigenous Perspectives; Canadian Journeys; Protecting Rights in Canada; Examining the Holocaust; Turning Points for Humanity; Breaking the Silence; Actions Count; Rights Today; Inspiring Change; and Expressions. The Museum also collects research and publications on human rights topics.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is a “member of the Canadian Heritage Portfolio and reports to Parliament through the Minister of Canadian Heritage” (Mission Statement). The purpose of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, as set out in the Museums Act, is:
[T]o explore the subject of human rights, with special but not exclusive reference to Canada, in order to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue.
The opening of the Museum for Human Rights has not been without controversy. From the choice of architecture for the building, to the location of the building being an important archeological site, to the way that Aboriginal rights exhibits do not use “genocide” when referring to residential schools, to the very contents or lack of contents of materials dealing with the issues addressed, have all been raised as concerns. It is hoped that the museum will provide a springboard for dialogue, research and contemplation about Canada’s human rights record and events. Hopefully, these and other controversies inspired by the Human Rights Museum’s opening and existence, will serve to encourage very much needed dialogue on human rights in Canada.
These controversies, and other concerns raised, and the passion around them, demonstrate the significance of human rights for Canadians. While it is important to celebrate the positive achievements Canadians and others have made to human rights, it is likely more important to address some of the serious human rights violations that are part of Canada’s history and current times. It is hoped that the museum will provide a springboard for dialogue, research and contemplation about Canada’s human rights record and events. Acknowledging the negative policies, laws and events that occurred in our history serves several significant purposes. First, it provides acknowledgment of the pain suffered by those who were abused and their descendants. Second, acknowledgment by others who have inflicted the abuses, and/or members of the current society, is vital step in the healing process. Finally, we must honestly review the effects of offending policies, laws and practices so that we might learn from them and not repeat them in the future.
I am reluctant to list Canada’s ignoble historical events, as I do not wish to offend anyone by failing to mention some. However, some notable violations include:
- many sections of the Indian Act;
- creation of residential schools for Aboriginal children;
- internment of Ukrainian Canadians in World War I;
- chinese Head Tax and Chinese Immigration Act of 1923;
- internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II
- refusal to accept Jewish refugees during World War II;
- forced relocation of Inuit people during the Cold War;
- top Secret plans to identify and intern Canadian communists and sympathizers during the Cold War; and
- criminalization of “homosexual” behavior.
There are many, many others.
Although the opening of the Human Rights Museum has sparked controversy, it remains a very worthwhile endeavour. Stuart Murray, the museum’s president and CEO, put it well when he said: “You have to shine a light in some dark corners in Canada’s history because we have to know, I think, where we came from to know where we’re going”.