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CMHR: The unbearable lightness of inclusion

Human Rights Museum suffers from cognitive dissonance

Canadian PoliticsCultureHuman Rights

Graphic by Krishna Lalbihaire.

Few buildings in Winnipeg, or Canada, have been as contested prior to their construction, let alone their opening, as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Plagued with controversy — rather, witlessly courting it — its edifice has been lurking on the horizon for years, while critique after compelling critique assailed its neoliberal ideology: some more damning than others, but none what one would call “good press.” Would the museum address itself to Palestine, to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? Does it even make sense to speak of the dignity of human beings under capitalism, when rights are essentially at market?

For many, however, the starkest preliminary evidence was last year’s bombshell that the museum would decline to describe Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples as genocide; a minimizing stroke at direct odds with the input of First Nations, not to mention that nebulous factor, reality — for example, the ongoing occupation of land in which the institution is complicit.

This rebuke appears fully in keeping with the constitutive bad faith of the museum, squatting blithely atop Treaty One territory (as is your author at present) on a sacred site. In consideration of this fact, the museum’s silence is deafening, even as its script is silencing. Suffice it to say that the museum was already a disaster at a distance. Now that the wait is over, the question beckons: does one dare to look inside?

The walk-up is intimidating, though the staff is at pains to ease this first impression with unseasonable good cheer. They have their work cut out for them, for the building itself is an iconic example of thwarted modernism, wherein the grand and the austere couple to supremely inhibiting effect.

Inside a cavernous foyer, a replica of the museum sits in a glass case, as though germinal of the whole enterprise. This sets the tone for much of what’s to come, for the attempts of the museum to place itself on display as a kind of post-political parliament will become more aggravating as we ascend. But I’m getting ahead of myself: en route to Settler Nutopia, Great Glass Elevator courtesy of ThyssenKrupp, the interloper first must conquer history itself.

“The land beneath this museum has always been,and will continue to be, home to Indigenous peoples,” reads the caption accompanying a 750-year-old footprint taken from the building site and cast in bronze. In short order, however, this auspicious material trace will be re-contextualized as one footstep among many on the road to rights for all.

The end of history

Inside the premier gallery, we are greeted by a crowded timeline of watershed “humanist” events, in context of which everything from Ubuntu to the reign of Cyrus the Great is invoked as precursor to our present- day conception of rights. This tediously teleological narrative is iterated in the corkscrew-shaped design of the building itself: the museum markets itself as a “journey from darkness to light,” and the floor plan couldn’t be more literal. One commences the tour in the depths and ascends the structure, like Dante edging his way up Mount Purgatory, enacting a conscience-cleansing pedagogical rite level by level. Lurking amid an illuminated rogue’s gallery of key historical figures one can spot Aristotle, Mary Wollstonecraft, Karl Marx; but the spectre who haunts the proceedings is surely the backlit likeness of G.W.F. Hegel, the philosopher of universal history whose restless, concentric “Idea” underwrites both Western liberal triumphalism, as well as much resistance to any such cynical abridgement of development and struggle. Nonetheless, the overriding message here is clear, and consistent with his very worst executors (Fukuyama et al.): history was awful and we’re glad it is over.

With mock-Hegelian optimism, this relentlessly linear account of human culture omits much. Naturally, such an active repression is necessary if one is seeking to backdate the contemporary definition of human rights by countless thousands of years. This gamble pays off, as the tourist, ennobled by some nebulous “spirit” native to humanity tout court, is requested to proceed to a nearby corner of the gallery entitled “Indigenous Perspectives,” pregnant with such implication as could shake the building at its foundation.

Relics and rebels

Here one may find acknowledgment of the museum’s placement upon the Forks, “a traditional meeting place of great significance for First Nations and Métis peoples.” An adjacent paragraph narrates the life of Métis revolutionary Louis Riel, furnishing the reader little explanation of his cause; though one may peer through a window across the river to Riel’s grave, where he was interred a year after his execution for treason by the Canadian state.

Movingly, Rebecca Belmore’s artwork Trace would seem to undulate in place on the wall immediately behind me. Commissioned by the museum, the sculpture is made from thousands of hand-crafted clay beads sourced from the site, where some 400,000 artefacts are said to have been uncovered during construction. (Further to this statistic, while the construction of the museum is supposed to have occasioned the largest-ever archaeological dig at Winnipeg’s Forks, Kimlee Wong points out that only three per cent of the site was ever examined before construction commenced, directly atop evidence of Indigenous nationhood.) Lest Belmore’s blanket attest only to that which has been buried, each bead was hand-crafted by volunteers and bears the unique mark of its creator. This is a work of stunning articulacy, and I would encourage any future visitors to the gallery to pause upon this artwork and consider what it might have to say to its immediate surroundings.

Likewise at this junction, the words of Maria Campbell, Joséphine Bacon and Taiaiake Alfred shout from the walls for close attention. Bacon’s poem is an urgent exhortation to conservation, concluding with a key philosopheme: “je sais que c’est dans l’impossible/que je trouverai le possible.” (I know that it’s in the impossible/that I will find the possible.) And Maria Campbell’s evocation of the continual displacement of Métis people from historic communities highlights the continuity of primitive accumulation with the gentrification of the city. (Which one can take in as a kind of sublime gestalt by the end of the tour, from the Tower of Hope overlooking the downtown.)

The words of Taiaiake Alfred are especially complicated in this setting. “The land was created by a power outside of human beings, and a just relationship to that power must respect the fact that human beings did not have a hand in making the earth; therefore, they have no right to dispose of it as they see fit.” Here one finds an astonishing admonition, in that the only positive right Alfred names in this passage is in effect a right of no right; people have no right to do with the world that precedes them as they please. It’s a profound thing to think upon as one reads the museum’s caption that “aboriginal peoples regard water as a living and life-giving force that must be protected and nurtured,” as though this were a quirky animism and not a requirement of the shared existence of all life on earth.

Water would seem to be a metaphor for contemplation here, one that we would do well to dwell upon, as this resource is routinely expropriated to the detriment of First Nations. As Erwin Redsky, Chief of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, and Cathy Merrick, Chief of Pimicikamak Okimawin, stress in an editorial, “the water that will pour from the museum’s taps and fill its ‘reflection pools’ will come — like all of Winnipeg’s water — from Shoal Lake, where members of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation were relocated to make way for Winnipeg’s aqueduct and have lived under a boil water advisory for 17 years.” This least-innocuous of structures operates as a microcosm of this city and country, in a manner that is flagrantly destructive of communities. Nowhere that I can see is this straightforward causality described, for it would turn the museum inside out.

Canadian conscience

The next room, “Canadian Journeys,” is a crescent-shaped gallery narrating select chapters of national history, a stalling progress that, staged as so many earnestly macabre vignettes, can’t but appear a horror show. The story of the Komagata Maru (always too timely; I think of the Tamil people stuck aboard the Sun Sea in 2010) spans an enormous screen above corrals pertaining to the Chinese head tax; the War Measures Act and the FLQ; the Winnipeg General Strike; gay marriage; migrant labourers; disability activists; encroachment upon and immiseration of the North; residential schools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and others. The alternating specificity and generality of address is numbing; not to mention how each cubicle-sized study winds up sandwiched into a brazenly cheerful meta-narrative of gradual enrolment in diversity. Each display implies this unsuitably optimistic coda; one’s attention is requested to trace an arc that spans from atrocity to recognition to redress in three or so key points, under the sign of a general humanity.

Perhaps we ought to subject this minimal Humanity, the necessary predicate for rights, to a moment’s inspection. For it is in the name of this generic figure that each and every specific struggle is collapsed into the next, as a triumphant achievement on behalf of all. It is as though residential school survivors had been campaigning for French-language rights all along; or that the struggle for gay marriage was won by striking workers; or any number of other comparable non-sequiturs belittling historically singular episodes. The implication is that each and every activist may rest assured that the ever-more inclusive fabric of liberal society will get around to them in turn.

This is not to downplay the real chance of solidarity between people’s struggles, upon which every chance for the future must rest; but it is crucial to identify each struggle in its particularity. Perhaps there is no “human” struggle, but there are Indigenous struggles, worker’s struggles, women’s struggles, LGBTQ struggles, and more. The suggestion that each of these groups is not making a specific claim on its own behalf — to land and culture, to a living and equitable wage, to full-bodied expression without threat of censure or violence, respectively — but rather, on behalf of “all” is fatally obscure. The worker does not fight for recompense on behalf of the capitalist; Indigenous peoples do not demand land rights for a settler’s benefit; and so on. The implied identity of these struggles with one another elides what is specifically at stake in each, the very content upon which solidarity depends. Here it is as though every struggle pertains to an obscure, species-wide quest for Ultimate Sameness.

In the centre of the gallery is a rubber rink, upon which surface a group of smiling gallery-goers appears to be playing hopscotch. The installation is called Lights of Inclusion, we are informed; within its bounds, a motion-sensing halo envelops the footsteps of each passing visitor. Whenever two approach, their halos connect, comprising ever larger, more radiant amoeba-forms. Presumably, this glowing fringe represents one’s modest share of hot-blooded humanity, and I laugh bitterly when my friend’s aura disappears beneath his feet. Is this a technical glitch, or something more telling?

Cognitive dissonance

At this point, the unbearable lightness of it all stands in grim contrast to the anecdotes of suffering comprising each display. But isn’t that the effect of the entire edifice in miniature; a case of form brutally trumping content? While I’m baffled by the amusement of my fellow patrons, this cognitive dissonance is only produced by the museum itself, all-too-cleverly Panoptic in its conception; for the most effectively silencing reprimand to the chance of a sceptical cross-examination doesn’t come from the volunteers or the exhibits, but the other visitors. Proper solemnity and good cheer are required in the presence of these others, often in unsuitable proportion; for in the liberal imaginary, critique is always in poor taste.

Faintly bewildered, we ride the coattails of a tour group’s collective aura into a room devoted to the Grandeur and Safety of Law, a “living tree” whose branches may extend indefinitely to support all. A pocket-sized Charter of Rights and Freedoms is available as a souvenir, and key documents pertaining to Canadian law, such as the Bill of Rights and the Proclamation of the Constitution Act, are on display in glass cases. A computerized “debate table” puts landmark Supreme Court decisions to the people in a series of starkly reductive Yes or No questions, covering corporal punishment, the Marshall Decision, and bullying, to name a handful of topics.

The tour group ahead of us is gathered in a circle, participating in a survey on the topic of free speech. All of the typical red herrings used to distract from the exceptionality of state power are put into play over the course of a question: “should freedom of expression be limited if what someone is saying threatens another person’s or a group’s right to equality?” The results are displayed on a screen as the votes come in. From a collectively observed moment of hesitation, I would describe this particular polling group as “cautiously non-conservative,” willing to abide a little bit of everything in the right proportion, up to and including the curtailment of “expression” for the sake of “equality” — so, to be clear, the answer is a resounding Yes, but with some show of personal compunction, as is becoming of a citizen.

Winnipeg high school students participate in CMHR interactive exhibit. Photo posted on

In the adjoining “Garden of Contemplation,” uneven columns of stone demarcate a network of the aforementioned reflection pools, by which placid waters the visitor is may spend a moment of thoughtful repose.

At this juncture I would encourage the visitor to consider that Shoal Lake 40 has taken to offering guided tours to outside visitors under the name of the “Museum of Human Rights Violations.” Anyone privileged enough to regard a necessity for life as a metaphor ought to be aware. Alternately, one may consider the myth of Narcissus, so deeply in thrall to an image of his own gentleness and beauty that he failed to assess his own woefully neglectful presence in the world.

The atrocity exhibition

The uphill slog from floor to floor is surprisingly demanding; imposing diagonal walkways give the vertiginous impression of a marble run. And the next room, devoted to the Holocaust, would be emotionally exhausting at any clip, boasting the most graphic visual cues of the day. Starved and haunted visages enlarged beyond scale stare from the walls, and interactive monitors explore the technical means of extermination employed by the Nazi state, explicitly comparing them to other murderous regimes as a paradigm of genocidal violence. The verse prefacing Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s memoir If This is a Man looms from the wall, a reprimand to the complacent onlooker. “Meditate that this came about,” the volta exhorts, and the gallery turns on the author’s solemn advice.

The next exhibit, entitled “Breaking the Silence,” contains exhibits on the five genocides acknowledged by the Canadian state — the Holodomor, the Holocaust, and killings in Armenia, Srebrenica, and Rwanda — as well as a touch-screen map of mass atrocities spanning the globe. Here again Canada’s residential schools are taken up, alongside the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the al-Anfal campaign in Iraq, to cite only a couple of examples.

To be generous, perhaps the staging of the gallery is intended to imply some kind of ethical, if not legal, equivalency of the residential schools with other genocidal campaigns, though they are not named as such: a sentence allows that “many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people argue that this school system was a form of genocide.” There is some difficulty, it is assumed, in venturing forth a verdict which would bear on our colonial present as much as a foreclosed-upon past.

For at this moment of cautious agreement, it should be said that this glimmer of acknowledgment pertains to only one prolonged episode in the history of Canada’s campaign against Indigenous peoples and culture, a chapter that dates from 1883-1996 in the history books, and thus may be relegated to an unseemly past. To limit one’s assessment of a range of genocidal policies to this timespan would be to repudiate the neo-colonial processes of denial and expropriation at work today.

The museum is not a court, its planners repeat when pressed, but ideology always operates at such a distance from the state. This is perhaps the major problem with the perceived mandate of the CMHR as a beneficent dispensary of acknowledgment — sometimes indefinitely pending, as in the case of Palestine, which proper name appears only once on the premises from what I can tell, in a paragraph regarding a multi-faith student group in Ontario.

To adapt poet Marianne Moore, “omissions are not accidents,” and the onlooker mustn’t allow the macabre eclecticism of the museum’s display to excuse galling forgetfulness. In a terrible irony, the stated purpose of this gallery is to explore “the role of secrecy and denial in many atrocities around the world,” even as its extreme selectivity may be a means of the same.

As I click around the interactive map of horrors, I get the distinct impression of a vying for space on behalf of each cause within an historical hierarchy of wrongdoing. From what privileged position are we to connect these dots spanning continents and centuries? The implication of parity in depravity furnishes us a merely instrumental concept of atrocity, reducing each survivor to a suffering object.

The writ of the rights of the rightless

We emerge from the claustrophobic hallway into a parallel, high-ceilinged space. This is perhaps the most text-heavy portion of the tour, though the dim lighting makes it difficult to read so many panels narrating the history of legal rights as built upon grassroots struggles. Illustrated flipbooks recount the history of documents such as the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada signed in 2010, and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, alongside photographic vignettes of world progress and regression. Naturally, the crest of this wave of acknowledgement is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, before which “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This is, of course, but an ideal to be juxtaposed with unfortunate reality.

As philosopher Jacques Rancière observes, human rights paradoxically appear to be the “rights of the rightless”; that is, of perennial victims, unable to claim these for themselves owing to their structural exclusion from a given state. The rights of the rightless, then, must be invoked on their behalf by an international, humanitarian advocate; without which function, much atrocity would transpire as a tree falls in a forest, out of legislative earshot. For this reason, the globalization of human rights has even strengthened imperial states, who henceforth acquire something like a right to foreign intervention, only on be half of human rights.

That the museum would presume to identify with this mediating force (force being the keyword here) largely accounts for the saviour psychology underwriting its mandate. The CMHR, it may be said, purports to show the gradual revelation of earthly justice by law; closely identifying this universalism with the policies of the Canadian state.

Every state obfuscates (or outrightly denies) its own abuses of humanity; but the CMHR operates at just such a strategic distance from the state as to allow critique and, more tellingly, a certain disavowal. Perhaps it is by addressing ourselves to this minimal gap, the measure of which ought to impel “progress” toward an ideal, that we may identify the museum as a failure of both advocacy and accountability. As seen, the CMHR is happy to adopt the licensing purview of the state on select matters; in celebrating Canada’s peaceful accord with a certain global community, or deferring to its ultimate judgment on matters of genocide.

Several Indigenous-led demonstrations were held ahead of the CMHR’s September 19, 2014 grand opening to draw attention to Aboriginal issues. Photo by Red Power Media; posted on

Chutes and ladders

As though to confirm my worst suspicions, the next stop on our journey is completely insipid. One may receive a lesson in civics from an unco-operative video game; my character goes door to door in his community attempting to register his neighbours to vote. Panels on student and community activism are not themselves meaningless, except as a proposed panacea to the deep structural inequities highlighted in the foregoing galleries. To be blunt, global capitalism cannot be improved upon by arts and crafts. At this point in the tour, however, we are reaching peak interactivity. There is a succinct exhibit on how everyday objects (coffee, mobile phones) interact with the uneven spatial economies of globalization, but the coda is to spend, albeit “ethically.” The queasy consumer in our midst is advised not to look too closely into the corporations that have funded the museum so far.

The watershed events of Idle No More are mentioned in two brief videos showcasing the exemplary activism of Buffy Sainte-Marie and Clayton Thomas-Muller, but these are placed alongside accolades for the mobilizations of various corporate charities, whose madly-off-in-all-directions approach to activism is only an exhortation to consume, but righteously. Those instructors planning school field trips will perhaps appreciate the videos on cyber-bullying and body image; only suffice it to say that at this point in the journey, this content suffers from a kind of overcrowding.

The penultimate level is devoted to the theme of peace, an exhibit on loan from the Canadian War Museum; and after some scant historical information on nuclear disarmament and diplomacy, the content mostly concerns Canada’s ostensible peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. Here the presumption of the museum to be on the right side of history breaks decisively upon divided opinion. However many post-it note referendums are staged throughout the gallery, and an unwavering praise of the police and military effort prevails.

The only depiction of combat is an enormous mounted photograph of a solitary Canadian soldier standing perfectly still amid a cloud of dust kicked up by a homemade bomb. It is a tranquil view on terror, and the composition resembles nothing so much as German Romantic painting — depicting a lone wanderer, cordoned by the frightening wilderness into a closed space of self-reflection. If this seems an unduly coy comparison, consider how this reflects the popular perception of the combat mission — agents of civilization versus the denizens of a barren wild — and complements the founding myth of our colony, as well. Canada’s spiritual mandate would appear to have changed little over time; in each case, we claim to have improved a people who never requested our presence.

I gawk in disbelief at a photograph of a UN-distributed board game for Afghani children; a moral-instructional instrument in which one advances by actions such as casting a vote, and loses ground by recklessly attacking aid workers. The museum is another such patronizing game, I suppose, encouraging the good Canadian at every moment to the effect that they remain on the side of right. At this point we are nearing the crux, having ascended the structure from its dismal bottom, and Canada’s improved profile in the world is proof of how far “we” have come. Environmental design is rarely so didactic.

Descending inspiration

From the Tower of Hope, one can see Winnipeg’s bedraggled and bedazzling downtown, soon to be subsumed by a business-led SHED, or Sports Hospitality Entertainment District. One can see the gleaming Manitoba Hydro building on Portage Ave., an emblem of the ongoing devastation wrought upon First Nations and the land by the hydroelectric dams that power the province and, needless to say, this museum. One can see much filth and pre-fabricated splendour, but whatever one sees from here, it is with the content, alternately meagre and macabre, of the foregoing galleries fresh in one’s mind, as though the living city itself were the museum’s most valuable exhibit.

From this point, all that remains for the visitor is to interpret a way out of this building and onto the streets themselves, onto occupied land, not as a tourist in one’s own city, but as a participant in something radically different.

Cam Scott is a poet and critic from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty 1 territory. He is the author of ROMANS/SNOWMARE, published by ARP Books in 2019. Follow him on Twitter.

This article appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of Canadian Dimension (Battling Austerity).


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