The Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights opens later this year. According to the mission statement it “will strive to enhance the understanding of human rights, promote respect for others and encourage reflection and dialogue.”

Praiseworthy objectives. But what are we seeing so far?

In a recent contribution to Christopher Moore’s Canadian History Blog, Mary Stokes describes the unpleasant competition between Ukrainians and Jews over the museum’s allocation of exhibition space. The Ukrainians lost 10 million people to starvation in the Holodomor, Stalin’s imposition of collectivized farming. The Jews lost six million to the Nazi’s ovens, labour camps, and gas chambers.

Stokes cites David Lett in an article from the Winnipeg Free Press (December 14): “For dispassionate observers, the debate over which is the worst atrocity, or even whether one atrocity has been given too much emphasis while others have been marginalized, is awkward, even discomfiting. It is, in essence, an attempt to measure and compare human suffering. For Ukrainians, this is about being marginalized, adding an insult to the injury inflicted on them in the early 1930s. For many Jews, the debate itself is anti-Semitic, a bid to diminish the importance of the Holocaust as part of an ongoing war against the Jewish people.”

Dear friends, we should have known from our own Canadian experience that the attempt to compare and to publicly evaluate, the rights, identities, and sufferings of political minorities results in anguish and anger.

Think back to the bad days when Canadians were debating the merits of the Charlottetown Constitutional Accord. The Draft Legal Text called for constitutional recognition of Quebec’s “distinctiveness.” It also “recognized” Aboriginals, official-language minorities, ethnic and religious minorities, women, and proponents of regionalism. There were debates about which group had contributed most to Canadian history. Should the Innuit be recognized in a separate clause? The Métis?

Individuals and groups were seized by fears that political programs antithetical to their interests would be justified in the courts through appeal to the constitutionally entrenched rankings. Feminists would rule. Or wouldn’t rule. The Aboriginals would tear the country apart. Or be ignored yet again. The French would refuse to acknowledge provincial equality. The English would once more assert their insufferable sense of superiority.

We defeated the Charlottetown Accord in a national referendum. Canadians refused to “reify” the Accord’s rankings and definitions. We refused to write them in constitutional stone and it appears in retrospect that we did the right thing. Is there a way to avoid reifying the rankings inherent in a Museum of Rights?

I’ll take the issue up tomorrow, starting with  Mary Stokes’ good observation: “how do we as historians, and as citizens, measure historical evil and victim-hood?” There is no definitive answer, she concludes: “everything is political (in the largest sense of the word.)”

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