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A museum about rights, and a legacy of uncomfortable Canadian truths

By Dan Levin

New York Times

WINNIPEG, Manitoba >> The Canadian Museum for Human Rights offers many opportunities for contemplation. A glass display case holds the bloodstained salwar kameez worn by Malala Yousafzai, the activist for girls’ education in Pakistan, during an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Video testimonials from survivors of the genocides in Rwanda, Ukraine and Bosnia aim to teach tolerance.

Or one can think about the fact — unmentioned by the museum — that the water flowing through its reflection pools comes from a lake on an aboriginal reserve where residents have not had safe drinking water for almost two decades.

“It’s the Great Canadian Myth on display,” Leah Gazan, an indigenous rights activist, said during a recent visit to the museum.

The $266 million museum (351 million Canadian dollars) has become a symbol of the contradictions between the nation’s modern multicultural identity and what critics say is an unreconciled legacy of human rights violations against indigenous peoples that continue to this day.

Its backers have praised the museum, which attracts nearly 350,000 visitors a year, for starting important conversations about injustice. But to others, despite a raft of powerful exhibits on the oppression of indigenous peoples in Canada, the museum could do more to address the nation’s uncomfortable truths about its past and present dealings with the descendants of the land’s original inhabitants.

Even before opening two years ago, the museum had become the focus of protests over its content, particularly by indigenous groups who said it plays down their plight.

A large number of the 1.4 million aboriginal people in Canada lack access to clean water, basic health care and education, the result of discriminatory government policies that have led to disproportionately high rates of violence, addiction and poverty, the United Nations, Canadian courts and international rights organizations have charged.

“What we’re seeing in the museum reflects a fundamental problem in Canada,” said Craig Benjamin, an indigenous-rights campaigner for Amnesty International. “Canada has long turned a blind eye to extreme violations of indigenous people’s rights. The national conversation about the depths of the crime — and the urgency of redress — is only just beginning to happen.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised a “total renewal” of Canada’s relationship with its aboriginal peoples. Hopes have risen over his government’s inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women, and his commitment to further incorporate indigenous rights into Canadian law. Yet many in Canada are concerned that the government is reneging on that promise.

The first national museum built outside Ottawa, the Canadian capital, the structure is an architectural tour de force, a hulking edifice of limestone and glass, designed to resemble a cloud wrapped around a mountain and topped by a gleaming spire said to symbolize hope.

It occupies a prominent parcel in downtown Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, a province where more than 75 percent of aboriginal children live in poverty, the highest rate in Canada, according to a recent study. Winnipeg, home to the nation’s largest urban indigenous population, has long struggled to overcome a racial divide, which both its aboriginal mayor and the museum are trying to heal through educational and government programs.

The museum, the brainchild of a Winnipeg media magnate who was inspired by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., was largely financed by private donors.

Rather than commemorate a specific event or regional history, the museum aims to educate visitors about the meaning of human rights through an array of themes, such as the struggle for legal rights in Canada and freedom of expression.

“It can never be all people want it to be,” said Maureen Fitzhenry, a museum spokeswoman.

For hundreds of years, indigenous people in Canada were victims of state policies that were explicitly written to eradicate their cultures, appropriate their lands and deny them political autonomy under treaties and laws like the Indian Act of 1876. The law gave the Canadian government the power to dictate who was considered an “Indian,” move indigenous people to resource-poor and isolated reserves and control their finances. It remains the core of many policies and regulations in effect today.

Around 150,000 aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and sent into a state-financed, church-operated residential school system for more than a century before the program was shut down in the 1990s. According to some estimates, as many as 6,000 children died and many more suffered physical and sexual abuse.

Other government programs forcibly sterilized indigenous women and put more than 16,000 aboriginal children up for adoption by white families.

Indigenous communities have long criticized the museum for not officially recognizing their historical oppression as genocide. Museum officials say the exhibits try to educate the public about these issues by prominently featuring the testimony of residential school survivors and information on the effects of colonization.

Rather than having a single exhibit highlight the subjugation of indigenous peoples and detail its contemporary impact, the museum weaves such issues into broader narratives about the fight for justice.

Its largest gallery, Canadian Journeys, examines the “steps and missteps on the road to greater rights for everyone in Canada,” according to the museum’s marketing materials. Booths include stories on gay rights, the nation’s Japanese internment camps during World War II, the reclamation of land by the aboriginal Inuit, the Underground Railroad and a devastating film on residential schools that shows former Prime Minister Stephen Harper making an official apology in 2008.

Critics say little in the museum addresses the continuing discrimination.

“You get a sense that in the past there were some mistakes and everything’s fine now,” said Karen Busby, director of the Center for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba.

Some former museum employees say that portrayal was the result of political interference, partly by a board appointed by the Conservative government of Harper.

Museum officials deny allegations of political interference. They say that the content went through a yearlong development process devised to ensure a nonpartisan narrative, and that what is on display reflects the need to incorporate a broad range of global topics. Fitzhenry, the museum spokeswoman, cited the dozens of exhibits that showcase past and current aboriginal issues.

“We talk about government apologies as acknowledgments of historic wrongs,” she said, “but do not imply that these constitute sufficient redress.”

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