Palestinian-Canadians feel ignored in human rights museum

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, being built near The Forks in downtown Winnipeg, is slated to open in 2014. That's about a year later than originally planned because of spiralling construction costs.

Some Palestinian-Canadians are upset that plans for the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg don’t include an exhibit with their story.

“As the opening comes closer, I become more and more concerned that the lessons of the Palestinian experience, nobody’s going to hear it,” said Rana Abdulla.

“Our story is an excellent story to educate Canadians about human rights. How would anyone take that museum seriously if they don’t hear the Palestinian story?”

With less than two years until the museum's inauguration day, a 92-page document describing the galleries and exhibits has just been released. It also describes the visitor experience, including tone, feeling and direction.

One of the premier spaces will be located in the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada gallery. It features a basket-shaped theatre with a wraparound video screen inside and wooden slats engraved by different aboriginal communities on the outside.

In the residential schools exhibit, the profile author writes visitors will feel "empathy for the damage suffered by families" because of residential schools. They will also "feel proud of Canada's apology," according to the document.

As for the Palestinian experience, museum spokesperson Angela Cassie said the topic hasn't been overlooked. The museum might address it through an art project, a story of someone who fights for Palestinian rights, and in the media literacy exhibit, she said.

“Wherever we can, we are going to look for opportunities to identify areas where people have worked to enhance human rights and have found opportunities to create discussion and dialogue in spite of conflict situations," she said.

"That’s one way we are going to look to address that story."

She also points out that plans have not yet been finalized and are constantly changing.

However, Abdulla says that’s not enough.

“Palestinians have a critical human rights story that should be fully presented in the museum,” adding the museum should not address it in “bits and pieces.”

Abdulla has spent the last few years collecting the stories of Palestinian-Canadians. She intensified her efforts after moving to Winnipeg with her family in 2009.

She said the fact that Winnipeg is home to the museum gave her an extra push to collect the stories of her people. She’s collected 10 so far.

“This is the project I’m taking on my shoulders to help my community and let everybody hear their stories, their pain, and their sufferings,” Abdulla said.

According to the United Nations, the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 displaced 750,000 Palestinians. Today, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reports their descendents total 5 million around the world.

Mohamed El Rashidy, vice-president of the Canadian Arab Federation, said the new museum will have to address and reflect what Palestinians have gone through and “give them a voice.”

“You can be courageous when you have this kind of diversity [in Canada] because you have so much strength. We shouldn’t fear stating the inconvenient truths and facts about history,” he said.

Adulla contacted multiple museum officials around 10 times beginning in June 2011 via email, phone and regular mail in an attempt to arrange a meeting and share her input on Palestinian content.

She received an email reply in July 2011 from a museum official who wrote saying Abdulla’s emails might have gone to the museum’s spam folder.

The official told Abudlla someone would follow up with her.

However, she never heard from anyone until the head of stakeholder relations, Clint Curle, contacted her last Friday — after CBC interviewed a different museum official about the topic.

A meeting with Abdulla has been set up for next week.

“We feel badly that Ms. Abdulla was not able to connect with us in 2011. We are not sure what happened then and we apologize,” Curle stated in an email to CBC.

“The CMHR is very interested in the human rights issues raised by the Israel-Palestine conflict [and] we are working on ways to portray its lessons.”

Maureen Fitzhenry, media relations manager for the museum, reiterated those remarks and noted the museum created a new position to manage stakeholder relations last November.

That should help the museum “become more responsive to requests from all the various museum stakeholders in future,” she said.

“Ms. Abdulla’s experience should not be characterized as a lack of interest in these issues,” she added.

“Building bridges with the Palestinian and Arab communities in Canada is important, along with ongoing work we’ve been doing with Guatemalan, Chinese, Rwandan, Cambodian, Armenian and Ukrainian communities, and many, many others.”

Since the museum's inception, there’s been debate over how the museum should address human rights.

James Kafieh from Canadians for Genocide Education (CGE) — a coalition of more than 40 multicultural groups — said no single atrocity should be elevated in importance over others, except the mistreatment of Canadian aboriginal people, in the museum.

One of the largest galleries will be dedicated to the Holocaust. Kafieh said “when you elevate … any one case study over and above all other, you suggest the suffering of some people is more important than others.”

It creates a “hierarchy of human suffering,” he said.

“There’s no constructive purpose associated with the study of human rights to elevate one or more cases head and shoulders above any other case. They should be handled on an inclusive and equitable basis," Kafieh said.

"Ultimately, this will tell us about the politics of human suffering."

Cassie, however, noted that since the beginning of the museum's planning, the Holocaust “has been an integral element …and what we’re looking at through the Holocaust is drawing out those stages of genocide so people can understand how it occurs.

"Those stages of genocide have very often been used and re-occurred in other circumstances and we feel that it’s an effective element to teach those stories and lessons,” she said.