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cbc.ca | 07Dec2011 | staff

Human Rights museum criticized at public meeting

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights was again forced to defend its proposed content against questions and criticisms during the institution's first annual public meeting in Winnipeg.

The meeting [on 06Dec2011] started with officials offering superlatives about the facility -- the first museum of its kind in the world; the most advance architecture in the country; the first national museum outside of the country's capital region; and a huge draw expected to bring in more than 250,000 visitors a year.

But when the floor was opened to questions, there were shouts about why the museum's Examining the Holocaust gallery will be devoted almost entirely to the genocide of European Jews, while other genocides recognized by Canada will be squeezed into a different gallery, Breaking the Silence.

"Is it the museum's intention to teach our children that all human rights flow from the Holocaust?" shouted one woman, Anne Thompson, from the gallery.

The Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA) and Ukrainian Canadian Congress have previously raised concerns about the lack of a full exhibit to mark the Holodomor, a genocidal famine that took place in Soviet-occupied Ukraine in the early 1930s.

"How did you concretely address some of these concerns that were raised by the UCC, regarding the ... possibily too much concentration on the Holocaust, vis-a-vis the other tragedies of the world?" Ostap Hawaleshka, a Ukrainian-Canadian and retired professor asked museum officials at Tuesday's meeting.

"We think that there are other tragedies … that are at least equivalent in terms of magnitude [to the Holocaust] but you know, there's nothing worse than counting my dead are more important than your dead."

Museum CEO Stuart Murray responded by saying they are listening carefully to many groups and have done extensive consultation -- and the process is still evolving.

But "we try to be very clear with all communities we talk to, that we're not a genocide museum, that we're really a human rights museum in the sense of how we're looking at some of these issues," he said.

Museum spokesperson Angela Cassie added the exhibition plan has changed significantly in response to concerns raised by the Ukrainian community, as well as other genocide-affected national groups, such as Rwandans and Armenians.

For example, the museum will now partner with the Kiev Holodomor museum in Ukraine, recruit an internationally regarded Holdomor expert for research, and present more Holdomor material throughout the museum, she said.

Questions were also raised about why archeological impact reporting has not yet been disclosed to the public. There were concerns the construction of the museum may have broken heritage permits, by breaking ground with disregard for valuable artifacts.

The site at the confluence of the Red River and Assiniboine River has great archeoligical significance because it was a meeting place for more than 6,000 years, well before the construction of pyramids in Egypt, some in the audience said.

Museum officials said the report was still being finalized.

Delayed opening

A surprise announcement at the meeting came when museum spokesperson Angela Cassie confirmed the doors won't officially open to the public until 2014 -- a year later than originally scheduled.

The construction of the building will be completed by 2012, but it will take another two years to develop and install the exhibitions, hire and train staff, Cassie said.

The total cost of the project is around $310 million, though that forecast could also change, she noted.