The Canadia Museum of Human Rights Photo by Aaron Epp

‘People’s museum’ of human rights to open

By  Aaron Epp, Catholic Register Special
  • September 20, 2014

WINNIPEG - Carmela Finkel remembers feeling terrified.

She was a little girl living in Poland when the Holocaust began. In 1933, when she was nine years old, the Nazi threat forced her Jewish family into hiding in a hole her father’s friend dug out for them under his house.

For 20 months, Finkel, her parents and her older sister lived in pitch-black darkness, relieving themselves in a pail and unsure of when they would get their next meal. They sneezed and coughed into pillows so that the German officers who had set up camp in the room directly above where they were hiding would not discover them.

Every day, Finkel asked God for help.

“I prayed, ‘Please let us die together,’ because I was terrified I would be left alone without my sister, without my parents,” said Finkel, now 81 and living in Winnipeg. “We didn’t know if we were going to survive or if Hitler was going to get his way and kill us.”

Finkel’s story is one of the many that have been recorded for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR), promoted as the world’s first museum focused exclusively on human rights. Located at forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in Winnipeg, its doors open Sept. 20.

The museum is the brainchild of Winnipeg businessman and philanthropist Izzy Asper, who died in 2003. His dream was transformed into a $351 million national museum with a mandate “to 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.”

Declared a national museum in 2008, the CMHR includes 11 galleries with exhibits that include over 100 hours of video, more than 300 artifacts and works of art, 2,543 images, 18 mixed media story displays, 19 digital interactive elements, 100,000 words of original text and seven theatres.

The exhibits are built around human rights themes, explored from multiple perspectives. Equality rights are examined through stories about indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and the LGBTTQ community. Democratic rights and freedoms are also a key focus.

Stuart Murray, museum president and CEO, calls it “the people’s museum.”

“It’s really about people, it’s about human beings,” Murray said. “It’s about their stories, it’s about their challenges, it’s about their triumphs.”

According to Murray, the museum is also a story about Canada’s concern for human rights and its attempts to apologize and make redress for past wrongs. At the same time, the museum offers a chance for Canada to say that there is more to do when it comes to working toward equal human rights for all.

“This building is a place that will continue that conversation, to ensure Canadians and visitors from around the world will be in a position where they can start a conversation to ultimately make this a better civil society,” Murray said.

Alex Neve, the secretary general for Amnesty International Canada, agrees that human rights education is important. Neve says there are many obstacles to stronger human rights protection in Canada and around the world, including indifference, misunderstandings and ignorance.

At the same time, there are numerous measures that help improve human rights protection, including awareness, education and empowerment.

“The new museum can play an important role on both fronts, tackling some of the obstacles to human rights protection and helping visitors deepen their understanding of, and commitment to, human rights,” Neve said in an e-mail.

The museum’s creation has not been without controversy, though. Located on First Nations Treaty One land and the homeland of the Métis people, the CMHR funded an archaeological excavation prior to construction that unearthed more than 400,000 artifacts. Some critics have questioned whether this measure went far enough, or if the museum could have done more.

Sandra Tomsons, a philosophy professor at the University of Winnipeg whose areas of expertise include aboriginal rights and justice issues in Canada, as well as human rights issues, wonders if the CMHR could be doing more to listen to Canada’s indigenous groups about how they want to be represented.

She also wonders if the museum’s choice of dedicating an entire gallery to the Holocaust while the 1932-33 Holodomor famine in Ukraine receives comparatively less space as a display in the “Mass Atrocity” gallery shows a mistake in judgment on the part of the museum.

At the same time, Tomsons believes critiques like these should not keep people from visiting the museum.

“What it is today is not what it has to be tomorrow,” Tomsons said. “I think the ongoing critique can allow for changes.”

If indigenous groups are concerned about how their story is represented, it is not too late to change the museum.

“It may not happen year one, it may not even happen year five, but hopefully by year 10, it will be there,” Tomsons said.

Neve points out that human rights issues are often controversial, contentious and hotly debated.

“Over time, by ensuring that a wide range of human rights concerns are well represented, in a neutral and principled way, the museum should be able to play a strong role in taking some of those debates out of the political arena and putting the focus where it needs to be: internationally agreed human rights standards,” Neve said.

Murray believes the controversies are an indication that people are interested in human rights. That interest was evident when the museum launched a promotion that offered 9,000 free mini-tours on the opening weekend. More than 30,000 tickets were requested and the demand was so high it crashed the museum’s web site. Museum staff hope that level of interest will continue to bring people to the museum so they can be a part of the conversation, Murray said.

“As long as people are talking, good things can happen,” he said, adding that the museum aims to empower people. “We want to give people the ability to move from being a bystander, to (being) people that will stand up for human rights.”

Finkel believes that by having stories like hers told, atrocities like the Holocaust will never happen again.

“The killing of innocent people is going on all over the world,” Finkel said. “Maybe by hearing and seeing, it will make people think before they act.”

“The more people that read about it and know about it, a better place this world is going to be.” 

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