WINNIPEG — Canada’s First Nations are challenging the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) over its use of the term “genocide,” and it’s generating a welcome discussion, says Maureen Fitzhenry, the soon-to-be-opened museum’s media relations’ manager.
“This is the whole point of the museum: to raise awareness and promote discussion of human rights issues such as genocide,” Fitzhenry said. “It may be that a lot of people haven’t given much thought as to what genocide is.”
She was responding to a controversy sparked by a letter last month from a prominent Manitoba Aboriginal organization that criticized the Winnipeg museum for not using the term “genocide” to refer to Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal People.
The letter came from Grand Chief Murray Clearsky of the Southern Chiefs Organization. It also noted that the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs pledged $1 million toward the construction of the $310-million facility, which is officially a federal museum but is being funded by donations and grants from all three levels of government.
Clearsky said the donation was made “with the understanding that a true treatment of First Nations would be on exhibit.” In a statement, CEO Stuart Murray said that the museum “will examine the gross and systemic human rights violation of Indigenous peoples,” but he added: “We have chosen, at present, not to use the word ‘genocide’ in the title for one of the exhibits about this experience, but will be using the term in the exhibit itself when describing community efforts for this recognition.”
Currently, the museum is officially only applying the term “genocide” to five specific events – the Holocaust, the World War I Armenian genocide committed by the Turks, the 1930s Ukrainian Holodomyr, the mass murders in Rwanda in the mid-1990s and the killing in 1995 of an estimated 8,000 or more Bosnian Muslims from the town of Srebenica by Serb irregular forces in that area’s civil war.
Aboriginal activists often use the term genocide to describe the mass deaths of native peoples in the Americas from foreign diseases and at the hands of European colonists, as well as efforts to herd Aboriginal Peoples onto reserves and erase their identities in places such as Canada’s residential school system.
What has made the CMHR a lightning rod for criticism from ethnic communities such as First Nations people, Fitzhenry said, is that “it is a difficult thing for most people to wrap their heads around the idea that the CMHR is not a museum built around displays of collections or photos and what should and shouldn’t be included in the collection...Yeah, I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around that one myself.