There is something inherently perverse about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the as-yet-unfinished landmark rising from the plain between a parking lot and a baseball stadium at Winnipeg’s Forks. When you get right down to it, this $351-million dream of the late media mogul Izzy Asper is being built to document evil.
Of course, it will also document survival against horrible odds and endurance in the face of atrocities that human beings inflict on one another. If you and your people have come through the worst of horrors, then that in itself is cause for celebration. But getting to be included in the museum’s litany of narratives has become a kind of race to the bottom: “The things that happened to my people are just as bad — if not worse — than those that happened to yours.” Or, as various groups already included in the museum have complained to its developers since almost day one, “The story you are proposing to tell about my people is not nearly so bad as it should be.”
The museum, which opens in September and is one of only two national museums located outside Ottawa-Hull, has been taking shape for more than a decade. In that time, disputes have almost constantly overshadowed what its promoters would prefer to highlight: a glass atrium “cloud” symbolizing the wings of a dove; spiral staircases leading up to a light-filled 100-metre-tall Tower of Hope; and a “mountain” made of 450-million-year-old Tyndall limestone from Manitoba. Possibly, museum of something as touchy as human rights should expect controversy. It is a museum of grievances, and it is very hard to make the aggrieved happy.
The Ukrainian community, for example, lamented that exhibits on the Holodomor (the 1932-33 starvation engineered by Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin) were going to be too close to the washrooms; Palestinians objected to being left out entirely; even Jews — whom Asper envisioned as central to the museum — were reportedly upset that the founding of the state of Israel was not going to be commemorated.
But the nascent museum’s most heated controversy is the growing insistence that exhibits depicting the story of First Nations peoples carry the word “genocide” in their titles. So far, the museum has resisted doing that.
The Canadian government currently recognizes five genocides: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Armenian genocide in 1915, the Rwandan atrocities in 1994 and the Bosnian ethnic cleansing from 1992 to 1995. First Nations activists aim to add one more to the list. For them, the museum is a testing ground. The Southern Chiefs Organization claims that when the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs donated $1 million (profits from a casino) to the museum in 2009, it did so “with the understanding that a true history of the treatment of First Nations people would be on exhibit.” When that didn’t happen, Murray Clearsky, then grand chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization, wrote scathingly to museum CEO Stuart Murray last summer, “It is now abundantly clear that Canada is choosing to sanitize the true truth and continue with their agenda of minimizing the many attempts of genocide perpetrated against the many peoples of this land.”
The project to define much of what happened to First Nations peoples after European contact as a genocide is, of course, much bigger than the museum. Last July, a potent shot was fired through an op-ed column in the Toronto Star. “It is time for Canadians to face the sad truth. Canada engaged in a deliberate policy of attempted genocide against First Nations people,” wrote Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, along with two active leaders of the Jewish community, Bernie Farber and Dr. Michael Dan. Their case was based on the residential school system and the government’s unwillingness to prevent mass deaths from tuberculosis, as well as some recently come-to-light documentation on nutrition experiments in which residential school children were all but starved. These, wrote Dan, remind him of “Nazi medicine.” The authors consider it self-evident that Canada’s treatment of First Nations peoples should be deemed “genocide,” as defined by the United Nations in 1948. Dan says that as a physician, he takes a clinical approach: “The UN definition is there, so you look; something either fits the criteria or doesn’t. Many things that happened to Native people fit the criteria.”
While this position is shared by growing numbers in academia and media, it carries profound implications. Such a reassessment of Canada’s history is troubling to many, not least because it equates perpetrators such as the Nazis, Stalin and Ottoman Turks with our own Canadian government and its colonial predecessors — ourselves and our ancestors. Even our churches, by running the residential schools, committed evil while believing they were doing good.
In our world, genocide is absolutely the worst thing you can say about an action undertaken by individuals or groups. So atrocious, in fact, that many historic events that carry the characteristics of genocide struggle to — or fail to — get named as such. Behind all this is a substantial problem with the word itself. The horrific things that have happened to peoples throughout history went without a name until Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born lawyer who lost his whole family to the Holocaust, combined the Greek word genos, meaning “race or tribe,” and the Latin –cide, meaning “killing.” He coined the term “genocide” and declared that it occurs when your group is targeted, not because of what you have done, but because of who you are.
Though we normally think of genocide as exterminating a people en masse within a short timeframe (and those recognized by the Canadian government all fit this description), the UN definition is quite a bit broader. Killing groups incrementally or destroying their identity by deliberately demolishing their culture also qualifies as genocide (see sidebar). But ironically, formalizing genocide as a crime seemed to augment rather than solve problems. In 1948, after much lobbying and debate, the newly formed United Nations passed a resolution declaring genocide as something to be both prevented and punished. Many countries, however, resisted the treaty, including the United States, whose Senate took nearly four decades to ratify it. This was possibly because those who failed to prevent genocide were also at risk of punishment.
Another problem: which events would be allowed to claim the name? What happened to the Armenians at the hands of the Turks in 1915 was retroactively termed a genocide — though still much protested by Turkey. Meanwhile, whether the violent slaughter in Rwanda in 1994 was actually genocide or simply a horrible chaos continues to be disputed in some circles. One issue is that the term itself has been placed on such an elevated tier of evil that its use is both jealously guarded and jealously coveted — franchised out, if you will, to specific victims.
In her 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Harvard scholar Samantha Power (now U.S. ambassador to the UN) describes how for almost the entire 100 days it took the Rwandan catastrophe to play itself out, the UN Security Council and the various arms of the U.S. government were locked in a semantic debate about whether to use “the G-word.”
“Genocide” is a legal as well as a descriptive term. It is duelled over between activists on one side and scholars on the other. To academics, who strive to be rigorous about history, perpetrators’ levels of intent are important, as is the notion that no one genocide looks exactly the same as the next. William Schabas, a Canadian-born international law scholar at Middlesex University in the United Kingdom, told a CBC radio interviewer that the term carries “a special stigma that distorts the debate.”
This is a view shared by the first academic I approached for an interview, a historian who hastened to tell me the topic has become so politicized he didn’t wish to go on record. Like Schabas, he does not deny that awful things happened to Native peoples in Canada. But he argues that using the term “genocide” makes it difficult to look at the awful things with precision: conventional wisdom and political correctness take over. The resulting chill prevents historians from examining the implications of these events.
Applying the term “genocide” to what happened in North America goes back four decades to the 1973 book The Genocide Machine in Canada: The Pacification of the North, by Robert Davis and Mark Zannis. Other books came later: American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (1993), by David E. Stannard; and Accounting for Genocide: Canada’s Bureaucratic Assault on Aboriginal People (2003), by Dean Neu and Richard Therrien.
Andrew Woolford, a professor of criminology at the University of Manitoba specializing in genocide studies, predicts the term’s use will continue to grow, particularly among Canadian academics. In 2004, he was the only Canadian scholar presenting at an international genocide conference; nine years later, there were seven papers on Canada. “There is a generational shift, where younger academics want to look at Canada through the critical genocide-studies lens,” he says. Still, he worries that people will fear being labelled denialists should they disagree with even a part of the thesis presented. “The role of scholarship should be to complicate rather than simplify things.”
On the positive side, Woolford argues that should the idea of a First Nations genocide become generally accepted, the results would be beneficial. “For the survivors, recognition is important. From a more general perspective, my angle is that thinking about ourselves as a nation born out of genocide gives us a point to reinvent ourselves, to think about how we can decolonize Canada and be different as a nation.”
In an interview, Dan, one of the Star editorial’s authors, suggests that using the term should be about healing. As a Jew, he says, he has spent a lot of time thinking about genocide. “In Canada, we have trouble processing the idea we are capable of it. It doesn’t go with our being peacekeepers, a nice country that is apologizing all the time. But in order to heal, we have to acknowledge that we did this.” Fontaine sees acceptance of genocide as closing a gaping circle. “Some people say it’s going to be just another money grab,” he allows. “Not so. It was never intended as something that would extract more money from the government. But there has to be a series of conversations with Canadians so together we can write the missing chapter in Canadian history, one that would have to include this notion of genocide.”
Something else about genocide is the thorny question of responsibility and guilt. As Hannah Arendt famously wrote of the Holocaust — an analysis quite possibly appropriate for the Aboriginal situation in Canada — yes, racist policy, though sometimes couched in the language of good intentions, bears a basic responsibility. But the majority of destructive actions are carried out by people (in Canada’s case, a lot of church people) simply doing their jobs, blind (sometimes wilfully) to the implications of their actions. This, as Arendt put it, is the banality of evil.
Former United Church moderator Very Rev. Stanley McKay says that the idea of a Native people’s genocide is difficult for our society. “We are completely caught up in the Canadian concept that somehow we were doing good; the church in particular had the interests of the First Nations in our minds and hearts when we did these things.” The first Aboriginal moderator of the United Church, now retired north of Winnipeg, McKay says that though it will encounter strong resistance, the project to identify some actions as genocide is important.
“Years ago, those of us who lived on reserves and went to residential schools experienced racism without having any idea what to do,” he says. “We had no idea we had rights to have things different.” When asked if the church has a role in the emerging discussion, he answers quickly, “Yes, a fundamental role. The credibility of the Christian community is on the line as this information becomes more widely available and people can no longer claim ignorance. The future of the church rests on its capacity to engage and develop right relations.”
Rev. James Scott, General Council’s officer for residential schools for the past 12 years, has observed the term “genocide” gain traction over time, with “more Aboriginal people now using the word.” Last fall, his staff flagged the importance of having a discussion about the use of the term within the church. “We need to move as a settler society to grapple with the breadth and depth of what harm we did,” he says. Still, he advises caution. “‘Genocide’ is a very incendiary word that sometimes might be a barrier [to] having people talk about important things that really happened. If you scare people away, they won’t want to hear the truth.”
Rev. Maggie McLeod, the United Church’s executive minister for the Aboriginal Ministries Circle, recalls the leaders of her home community using the terminology “cultural genocide” to describe “the historical reality of the destruction of culture and language.” But she says that such language, when used in other circles, “to my surprise and disappointment was considered to be carrying the impact a little too far.”
Says Scott, “There may be gradations of how blunt we can be, but those gradations need to move forward. We need to learn and help others understand the profound brokenness we created.”
Everybody struggles in this manner. In Winnipeg, museum staffers wrestle with what they see as their proper responsibility. “If the museum were to use the word ‘genocide,’ it would make a declaration it has no right to make,” museum spokesperson Maureen Fitzhenry told the Winnipeg Free Press. “We are not a court that adjudicates,” Clint Curle, head of stakeholder relations, tells me, “but a place to hold the conversation. We believe this is our proper and also welcome role. Education may be more effective than adjudication in helping Canadians grapple with the human rights issues in our past. That is also more in keeping with the museum’s capacity.”
What should Canadians feel? Should we be appalled by efforts to lump us in with history’s vilest regimes, or should we welcome a blunter interpretation of our national story? Is it important and necessary that we experience a greater shame than we already carry with regard to the history of Canada’s relations with First Nations peoples?
Andrew Woolford quotes German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who acknowledged about his country, “We are participants in a form of life that made genocide possible and this is why we need to critically interrogate the past and our present.” Applying this to our own time and place, Woolford adds, “I think we need to interrogate the Canadian past and the Canadian present and work toward social change.”
Larry Krotz is an author and journalist in Toronto.
To read more of The United Church Observer's award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.
Get The Observer’s latest stories on justice, faith and ethics by signing up for our e-newsletter. It only takes a few seconds to join and we’ll deliver award-winning content to your in-box.