New museum slammed for not using the term ‘genocide’ to describe aboriginal relations exhibit

Even though its not scheduled to open to the public until 2014, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is already embroiled in its first major controversy.

The Winnipeg museum has decided not to use the word 'genocide' in an exhibit to describe Canada's aboriginal policies over the past century.

On Friday, the museum released this statement:

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. Historical fact and emerging information will be presented to help visitors reach their own conclusions.

Earlier in the week, a spokesperson for the CMHR told the Winnipeg Free Press that, as a crown corporation, it was important that museum's wordings align with federal government's position. The Canadian government has not recognized its aboriginal policies as genocide.

The decision is not sitting well with academics and First Nation leaders who strongly feel that federal policies such as the residential school system and the forced relocation of thousands aboriginals should be considered genocide.

"It's a shame. I think the museum needs to be a leader, not a follower on this," University of Manitoba Proffesor Adam Muller, a genocide expert, told the Free Press.

"You look at colonial activity in the Americas and it seems clear to me, at the end of the day, they were trying to destroy a group and way of life."

[ Related: The future of First Nation relations: peace or strife? ]

Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer and Chair of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, argues that the credibility of the museum is at stake here.

"I don’t think there is much point in having a “museum” if it is a political museum which only presents the censored pictures, displays, histories and terminology that is government approved. This is more like an international propaganda machine than a legitimate museum. Canada is supposed to be a “liberal democracy” not the dictatorship Prime Minister Harper has turned it into," she told Yahoo! Canada News in an email exchange.

"This museum will be a disgrace before it is even open if they are going to start filtering the facts about historical and ongoing oppression, colonization and genocide against Indigenous peoples."

Palmater, who was a spokesperson for the Idle No More movement, says that what happened to First Nations in Canada fits the internationally accepted definition of genocide — a defintion that she says that Canada has signed on to.

"Most people misunderstand genocide to be the mass murder of millions of people all at once, and while this is the most extreme case, it is not the only criteria," she said while including the following definition in her email.

UN Convention Against Genocide says:

Article 1

The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.

Article 2

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

•(a) Killing members of the group;

•(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

•(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

•(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

•(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Article 3

The following acts shall be punishable:

•(a) Genocide;

•(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;

•(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;

•(d) Attempt to commit genocide;

•(e) Complicity in genocide.

Ernie Crey, however, disagrees.

The policy adviser for the Stó:lō Tribal Council doesn't dispute the many failed government policies of the past but suggests the term genocide isn't accurate because, for most people, it means the utter destruction of a people.

"I am hard pressed to point to one such case [in Canada]. It would be far easier to point to genocidal policies towards Indians in the U.S., Central and South America," Crey told Yahoo! Canada News, adding that the term 'genocide' doesn't help First Nations move forward today.

"In the Canadian context, one might more accurately speak of 'cultural genocide', as opposed to the annihilation of a people. But even here, we must be ever aware of the context in which government and church groups sought to transform traditional Aboriginal societies into something more closely resembling Euro-Canadian societies.

"And many Aboriginal people overlook the fact that both church and government inoculated Aboriginal people against a host of communicable diseases like smallpox, measles and so forth. Hardly the actions of people intent on genocide."

[ Related: Do we need a national inquiry into missing or murdered aboriginal women? ]

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will be the first museum solely dedicated to the human rights in Canada.

According to its website, it's also the first national museum to be established since 1967 and the first outside the National Capital Region.

The CMHR is expected to have a significant collection of aboriginal history.

(Photo courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights Facebook page)

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