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Hill Times | 16Apr2012 | Oksana Bashuk Hepburn

Canadian Museum for Human Rights: right the wrong

Without a more appropriate vision the museum will not make a significant contribution to the big questions.

OTTAWA -- The oversize bunker-like structure overwhelms other buildings in Winnipeg’s core. The northerly wind, cutting through its half-exposed metal ribs and whipping up a storm through its hollow interior reflects the general attitude of Canadians towards the Canadian Museum for Human Rights: a grandiose vision without a heart. Too little wisdom and even less spirit of Canadian inclusiveness and friendliness, as Manitoba’s licence plates proclaim, have marred what should have been a tribute to Canada’s global leadership in human rights. Planned as the “future” of global education in the motto man’s inhumanity to man it has managed, instead, to antagonize and alienate. The Canadian flag tops the jagged reach-for-the-sky tower as if to proclaim that the feds are responsible for this mess. They are not; un-Canadian egos are.

Problems abound. The cost overruns are immense; the initial construction cost jumped from $270-million to over $350-million; the annual operating costs from $21.7-million to $30-million. The chairman of the board, Arni Thorsteinson -- longtime associate of the Aspers, and key promoter of the museum -- resigned suddenly.

Other key position-holders have left and little explanation was provided leading many to conclude: don’t criticize powerful people even when they are wrong. Undoubtedly cost overruns were a factor. But there were other factors.

Some have called it a “sightless vision, fiasco, Museum of Hypocrisy” at its determination to be less than inclusive, is clear. Somewhere into the initiative, but well before the government said ‘no’ to further requests for funding while donors held back, the museum was criticized for its preferential treatment of one aspect of a European tragedy, the Jewish Holocaust. This focus underscores the evil of the Nazi killing machine and its victims. There is no similar treatment of Communist crimes against humanity ordered by the Kremlin. It’s as if the museum’s, indeed, Canada’s message is to exonerate the Soviet crimes against humanity. This is wrong, discriminatory and un-Canadian.

A better way was offered by Timothy Snyder, the award-winning author and history professor from Yale University, in Winnipeg last week to talk about the findings in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

The understanding of the Second World War, he said, lies in recognizing it as a battle between two ideologies both wanting the same piece of geography, the then western Poland, Galicia, Soviet Ukraine and Belarus, in order to realize their own imperial vision. This blood-soaked territory is the graveyard to some 14 million non-combatants. In a mere 12-year period -- between 1933 when the Soviets precipitated the artificial famine in Ukraine and 1945, the end of the war when Germany was defeated -- some 1.5 million perished each year. That’s Winnipeg’s population wiped out in twelve months. The vast majority -- two thirds -- were non Jews.

When asked, Prof. Snyder offered an approach to resolve the museum’s woes.

First, given its name, have it focus on Canada; the native disenfranchisement, the reserves, the residential houses. Add internment, early mistreatment of immigrants and blacks: he might have added the missteps of current human rights legislation and practices.

Next, deal with the horrific European war; the big ideological lies, the reign of terror, the dangers of dictatorships, and statelessness drawing valuable lessons about the vulnerability of 14 million dead, plus the soldiers killed in battle, plus the devastation, displacement, disease, starvation. Underscore the universality of evil: it is not exclusive to one ideology, one perpetrator or one victim.

A lesson that concentrates on a part rather than the whole and selects a particular focus misses too much. Timothy Snyder would have the museum tell the entire story of the blood lands orchestrated by both Hitler and Stalin. Offering the Holocaust as the pre-eminent tragedy of that region is, at best, ignorance of the history of the Bloodlands. And for a complete understanding of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ he would have other genocides’ exposure in a global galley.

Lessons drawn from these atrocities have led to the evolution of human rights. His arguments for opening up and inclusion rather than exclusion resonate. Today’s Germany is a far cry from Hitler’s vision. This is not the case in many of the newly-emerging states in the post-Soviet space. There, one bad government was replaced by another. Underexposed, unpunished and unrepentant, former Communists and/or heirs to Soviet thinking continue to violate human rights. Russia’s returning president is a prime example.

Without a more appropriate vision the museum will not make a significant contribution to the big questions dealing with crimes against humanity: What have we learned from history? Why are atrocities still happening? What else needs doing?

Canadians now wait to see what the museum’s new leadership will propose. Prof. Snyder has advanced our understanding of the breadth of the crimes against humanity perpetrated during the Second World War. The museum, too, must move forward by basing its existence on Canadian values rather than big-ego dreams.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn was a director with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
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The Hill Times