Author: Kieran Murphy

Few Answers to Difficult Questions at Canadian Museum for Human Rights

by Maddy Pauchet

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, designed by architect Antoine Predock

Kit Muir frowns and finishes her second beer. “It’s funny that you’re so enthusiastic about the Human Rights museum,” she says. “The reception here wasn’t nearly so warm.”

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) opened in Winnipeg, Manitoba in September 2014. Built by architect Antoine Predock, it is designed to replicate Canada’s natural scenery and open spaces, including its mountains, prairie skies, northern lights and glacial peaks. The museum aims to explore human rights in Canada and internationally, to enhance the public’s understanding, to promote respect for others, and to encourage reflection and dialogue.

According to Muir, a second-year Journalism student at Red River College in Winnipeg, the Museum faced some early criticism. A 2011 Global News article puts the cost of building the museum at CAN$351 million. “Why put so much money into this?” Muir asks. She describes the human rights violations and the poverty at home that she believes should’ve taken precedence. She also relates the condemnation the museum received for its hesitance to describe the colonization of indigenous peoples as a genocide. The electronic pow-wow band A Tribe Called Red pulled out of the museum’s opening festivities in 2014, and released a statement that summarized their position: “we feel it was necessary to cancel our performance because of the museum’s misrepresentation and downplay of the genocide that was experienced by Indigenous people in Canada by refusing to name it genocide.”

Jodi Giesbrecht, Manager and Researcher at CMHR, explains that much of the early criticism was fueled either by speculations about the museum’s representation of First Nations, or by a poor understanding of its mission. In response to Muir’s criticism of fund allocation, Giesbrecht punts and points to a broader argument. “Every arts and cultural institution faces this question, but it’s not a zero-sum game.”

Asked whether the museum must answer to the government because of its national designation, the curator of the ‘Indigenous Perspectives’ gallery says that the question is asked often, but that in her year at the museum, she has never experienced governmental restrictions on the content of the exhibits.

The Museum’s first exhibit answers “What are human rights?”

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) concluded that the colonization of indigenous people amounted to ‘cultural genocide.’ A CMHR release acknowledges these findings, and describes their commitment to “play a role in reconciliation through education… to explore the connection between genocide and colonization…we include the voices…of those taking steps to have Residential schools officially recognized as genocide…we can help to ensure that this conversation continues to grow.”

Still, the ‘Breaking the Silence’ gallery that aims to “explore the role of secrecy and denial in many atrocities around the world” does not include colonization or Residential schools among the five genocides that they recognize. Instead, they receive the designation of “mass atrocity.”

In resisting the word ‘genocide,’ CMHR pursues a conversation that TRC had already concluded.

The Museum’s Garden of Contemplation

How Many Genocides?

by Kieran Murphy

During a visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, I noticed a consistent difficulty in representing human rights objectively. How do we define a genocide, an ethnic cleansing, or a refugee? And who do we rely on to define these terms—The UN? The Canadian government? The general public?

Kendall McLean, a Museum employee who gave us our tour, said that the Museum struggled with communicating human rights in a way that everyone accepted. McLean explained that the Museum started out viewing its role as an objective conveyor of facts. She emphasized that she doesn’t think that the role of the Museum is to define words, but to educate the public about human rights, mostly through government and academic sources.

The Museum quickly ran into issues with “objectivity”. For starters, there is no source that is the “official” voice on human rights. The Museum didn’t know whether to use official Canadian sources or sources from the UN, a particular NGO, or groups of people.

The problem was demonstrated in the exhibit on genocide and mass atrocities, only the five cases officially labelled genocide by the Canadian government: the Armenian Genocide, the Holodomor, the Holocaust, Rwanda, and Srebrenica.

When I asked McLean about why only these were included, she noted that to become recognized by the Canadian government, significant lobbying is necessary. Thus, in McLean’s view, the exhibit is more about the importance of breaking the silence on genocide.

To any observer without a guided tour, these five genocides seem like the only ones that fit the definition of genocide. In reality, there are dozens more that have taken place in the last several hundred years alone. There is no indication in the exhibit that these are special because people lobbied the Canadian government. In fact, it seems strange to emphasize genocides recognized by the government. Why not focus on genocides in which no victims have been taken in as refugees by Canada, such as the Timor or Creek genocides? Genocide is too important and all-encompassing an issue to be portrayed in such Canada-centric light.

Another point of questionable objectivity stems from the Museum’s exhibit on Honorary Canadian Citizens. The honor has been bestowed upon only six people, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who the Museum says is “known internationally as a champion of peace, democracy, and non-violence in Burma.”

Aung San Suu Kyi gets more media attention today as the Burmese ruler who is all but condoning the genocide of the Rohingya people in western Burma. She is certainly not acting like a “champion of peace, democracy, and non-violence” in her current capacity.

When I asked curator Jeremy Maron about why Suu Kyi is still featured, he said her picture is meant to “spark a discussion” about her legacy. Her picture, standing proudly between Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai, and labelling Suu Kyi a “champion”, suggests that the discussion is closed. Though the Museum did post on Facebook asking readers about her legacy, anyone reading about Suu Kyi for the first time in the Museum would think she is a champion for peace.

In general my frustration stems from the fact that the curators gave me arguments that were perfectly reasonable, but that were not reflected in the content of the Museum itself.

We Help Them, They Help Us

by Francesca Billington

“It’s not just humanitarian—we need it.”

Ben Rempel, the Assistant Deputy Minister of Manitoba Education and Training, said Tuesday morning, that resettling and integrating refugees is not only a humanitarian effort. It’s something that the Canadian economy and the country’s aging demographic needs. This is why the numbers of refugees Canada takes should be increased, Rempel said. Canada needs to “shift the discourse” and the government should start talking about refugees in terms of what good they can bring the country.

In other words: “If you help them, they will help you.” Tam Nguyen, the owner of Tam’s Pho on Portage Ave. in Winnipeg, promised himself, decades ago when he travelled from Vietnam to the U.S., that if he survived he would help other people in return. It had been three days since he’d eaten, there was no water left, and he was on a small boat packed with others making the journey.

We’re sitting around four small, circular tables pushed together, all of which together span nearly the length of his restaurant. Tam has taken our orders and served us the food cooked by his wife. They got married two years ago before she moved to Canada. Tam comes out of the kitchen and stands in front of our tables, smiling. He isn’t shy while talking about his first experiences in Winnipeg, when he knew no one and had almost nothing. He says he kept reminding himself that he had made the decision to leave for a reason, that he did not have to leave his family, that he needed to get up and make a better life for himself. So he did. “I help people because I almost died on the boat,” Tam said. “I was hungry for three days and I would sit in the boat and pray.”

Tam did choose Canada but being resettled in Winnipeg was still a surprise. When he got here, Winnipeggers walked him through everything: learning English, grocery shopping. He opened his own tailor business and two years ago, his restaurant. He says that if someone here hadn’t helped him, he wouldn’t have started a business. Tam is grateful for the people who helped him, but he reminds us to know that refugees and immigrants will pay this wealth back. “Refugees are very good for the country,” Tam said. “If you help them, they will help you.”

So how do refugees and Canadians understand the point or benefit of resettlement? The Mennonite Central Committee Sponsorship Program recognizes refugee resettlement as having three distinct benefits: humanitarian, economic, and family unification. The MCC considers refugee private sponsorships as strictly humanitarian. Funding and supporting is not strictly tied to economic gains.

Maybe it all comes down to whether acting in the spirit of humanitarianism or strong national economy are mutually exclusive.

“I Don’t Know Much About Patrick Swayze”

by Allison Light

When Tam Nguyen first arrived in Winnipeg in 1980, there weren’t many other Vietnamese people yet – the city wasn’t the diverse immigration destination it is now. He had left Central Vietnam after the army tried to conscript him to fight the Khmer Rouge, fleeing to Malaysia by boat at age 23. He knew his chances of resettlement were low in the United States – he had no connections to the US army. He was like “garbage” to the US, he said. Instead, he set his sights on Canada.

Now, Nguyen is a prominent community member, owning both a successful tailor shop that he started in the 80’s and a Vietnamese Pho restaurant opened two years ago. He casually talks about tailoring clothes for movie stars like Brian Dennehy and Patrick Swayze. Canadians Helping Kids in Vietnam is a charity he’s started to send aid back home. He told us that the Vietnamese community here has transferred some of the political conflict from back home. His peers are quick to accuse him, he said, of communist sympathies because his charity sends support back to a home country run by a communist government. “You put me in the middle,” he told them. The charity gives $25 a month to sponsored families, as well as helping build schools and providing healthcare.

I took away a few major ideas from our conversation with Nguyen. He raised the issue of political conflict within the Winnipegger Vietnamese, which got me interested in the idea of microcosms, and left me wondering how other expat communities here have retained and still reflect their home countries’ divisions. Does this reflect in the geography of Winnipeg, the way the divide is north/south in Vietnam? He also spoke about how he could not have built the life he did without the generosity and kindness of Winnipeggers who helped him upon arrival, and how that gratitude motivates him to give back to new refugees arriving now. When he mentioned the Congolese family that he helped, I wondered if there are chains of assistance across Winnipeg’s immigrant communities – that is, refugees helping refugees who’ve gone on to help refugees and so on, specifically across different backgrounds (as opposed to Vietnamese helping new Vietnamese, for example). He didn’t have a specific example from his own experience, but it could be interesting to trace helping hands across the city.
Finally, on a lighter note, I loved the comment that he worked six days and on the seventh went to the Jets game, and I was really interested in his first reactions to hockey as a sport, as well as how memories surfaced of kicking leaves wrapped in a banana peel around in the Vietnam sand as a makeshift soccer ball. I feel like looking at refugees as hometown sports fans could tell an interesting story of assimilation and loyalty – we didn’t ask him point blank if he “felt Canadian,” but a newcomer’s process of understanding and appreciating the local sport obsession certainly seems like a reflection or facet of their overall integration narrative. Maybe there’s a story in that as well – is team loyalty a cause or effect of national loyalty?

Canada’s Human Rights Museum Raises Difficult Questions

Princeton graduate student Ferdose Idris gazes out at Winnipeg from the Garden of Contemplation


by Rose Gilbert

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is carefully curated. When the museum first opened its doors in in September 2014, it was the first national Canadian museum outside of Ottawa, and its creators wanted the new building’s design to represent the country’s diverse landscape. In 2003, the Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights launched an international competition to select a design. New Mexican architect Antoine Predock won with a concept that emphasizes the natural features of four of the nation’s geographic regions: jutting blocks of brown stone represent the Rocky Mountains, several stories of curving glass windows clouds and the prairie skies, massive wedges on either side of the entrance the nation’s roots, and the gleaming glass tower the Northern Lights.

Even the ground on which the Museum is built carries symbolic weight. Because of its historically significant location at the Forks, a meeting place for indigenous people where the Assiniboine and Red rivers meet, the Museum consulted indigenous elders on how to show respect for the site. Medicine bags were deposited in holes beneath the building on the elders’ request. The Museum is also proud of its accessibility features: all of the exhibits are organized along a long, gradual ramp, subtitles and sign language interpreters accompany every video, and the low railings that allow a good view from the low seat of a wheelchair.

Princeton student journalists discuss the exhibits in the Garden of Contemplation in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights

For all this care and consideration, our group was a little wary of the Museum’s underlying motives. While eating dinner with local communications students, we heard that some of the community thought the 300 million dollars it took to build the Museum would’ve been better spent improving the lives of Winnipeggers, and particularly, of indigenous people. At the Museum, manager and researcher Jodi Giesbricht said that all arts and culture institutions face this kind of criticism, adding that government funding is not a “zero-sum game.”

The Museum has also been accused of downplaying the genocide of indigenous people in Canada. There are exhibits on the residential school system and the 60’s scoop (in which indigenous children were taken from their families and adopted out into white ones), and the digital mass atrocities exhibit includes Canada’s treatment of aboriginals, but this cultural genocide has not been recognized by parliament, and therefore doesn’t have a place in the genocide exhibit alongside the Holocaust, Holodomor, Rwandan, Armenian, and Srebrenica genocides.

The Museum counts the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network among its donors and has a national network of indigenous advisors. The Museum includes cultural spaces like a terrace for indigenous visitor to smudge (a purification ritual involving sweetgrass smoke) without setting off the fire alarms.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is beautiful, and conceptually-fascinating, and fastidiously-curated, but it is not perfect. Human rights is a broad and challenging subject to represent in a thorough and accessible way that satisfies all (or even most) stakeholders. Hopefully the Museum will continue to seek out input and criticism to create informative and inclusive exhibits.

Princeton student journalists Tobias Stoner, Allison Light, and Kieran Murphy learn about the resettlement of a Roma family fleeing persecution in Hungary through an interactive exhibit in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights

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