Canadian Museum for Human Rights opening marked by music, speeches and protests

Demonstrators call for attention to First Nations issues and the Palestinian struggle


Canadian Museum for Human Rights officially opens amid protests
Canadian Museum for Human Rights officially opens amid protests


CBC News



It was a morning of music, dance, speeches, a little rain and a lot of protest as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights officially opened in Winnipeg.

“With the placement of this final stone, at the heart of our circle, it is with great pleasure that we now declare open the Canadian Museum for Human Rights,” Gov. Gen. David Johnston stated as the centre stone — part of a circle of hand-gathered stones from national parks and national historic sites — was set in place during the opening ceremony Friday.

Inside the event, hundreds of dignitaries gathered and heard speeches about the genesis and purpose of the $351-million museum.

Meanwhile outside, dozens of protesters used the media spotlight to bring attention to issues of murdered and missing women, First Nations water rights, the disappearing traditional lifestyle of First Nations and the Palestinian conflict.

“What happens when these guys over here, with their suits and ties and their outfits, destroy everything?” one First Nations protester yelled.

‘You have to shine a light in some dark corners in Canada’s history because we have to know, I think, where we came from to know where we’re going.’— Stuart Murray, museum president and CEO

As strains of O Canada rang out, it mixed with songs of First Nations women protesting and was punctuated by a woman yelling, “Your museum is a lie.”

One of the first groups to arrive brought their message of the struggle of Palestinian people in Gaza.

They said they feel overlooked and will continue to push in the hopes that eventually they will be featured in the museum.

The protesters said they were upset the issue is not being recognized at the museum, even though they have met with museum representatives over the past couple of years to have it featured in one of the galleries.

Other protesters called on the museum to recognize what they said was the historical “genocide” committed against First Nations by the Canadian government. They drummed, performed ceremonial smudges, chanted and carried placards.


Buffy Sainte-Marie
Buffy Sainte-Marie told reporters on Friday afternoon that Canada and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights should be using the term ‘genocide’ to describe the residential school experience. (Jillian Taylor/CBC) 

Their sentiments were echoed by legendary Canadian musician Buffy Sainte-Marie, who is performing at the museum’s opening concert Saturday night.

Sainte-Marie told reporters that Canada and the human rights museum should use the term “genocide” to describe the residential school experience.

“I think the museum needs to be much more honest, much more bold and much better informed,” she told reporters Friday afternoon.

“I don’t really think that some of the museum people are truly aware of what our history has been.”

Sainte-Marie admitted that she hadn’t seen all the galleries in the museum yet, but added that her expectations were not high.

Group cancels performance

Saturday’s concert was supposed to feature First Nations DJ group A Tribe Called Red, but the group pulled out on Thursday, citing concerns about how the museum portrays aboriginal issues.

“We feel it was necessary to cancel our performance because of the museum’s misrepresentation and downplay of the genocide that was experienced by indigenous people in Canada by refusing to name it genocide,” the group said in a statement Friday.

“Until this is rectified, we’ll support the museum from a distance.”

Museum president and CEO Stuart Murray said the museum will and should spark protest and debate. The vision for the museum has always been to allow people to voice their opinions, he said.

“The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will open doors for conversations we haven’t had before. Not all of these conversations will be easy. We accept that but we will not shy away,” he said.

Officials said they are open to talking to different groups and will update the museum’s content as human rights issues unfold around the world.

‘The journey is finally beginning’

In addition to the opposition from protesters, the museum has faced construction delays leading up to Friday morning’s grand opening ceremony, which began with an indigenous blessing led by elders, including a First Nations prayer, a Métis prayer and the lighting of an Inuit qulliq, or oil lamp.


  •  A peak inside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on opening day.

​The ceremony was attended by numerous dignitaries including the Governor General and former Manitoba premier Gary Doer, who is now Canada’s ambassador to the United States.

Current Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz and the museum’s national campaign chair, Gail Asper, spoke at the event, while the program also featured special performances from Canadian vocal quartet the Tenors, YouTube singing star Maria Aragon and Winnipeg singer-songwriter and fiddle player Sierra Noble.

Asper paid tribute to her late parents, Babs and Israel Asper, who were the driving forces behind the museum.

“Neither my father Israel nor my mother Babs [is] here alive to celebrate with us, but I know they would be filled with gratitude and joy that the journey is finally beginning, this beautiful journey of education and, most importantly, action,” Asper said during the ceremony.

A children’s dance finale, representing Canada’s next generation of human rights leaders, concluded the opening ceremonies program.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasn’t in attendance. A spokesperson said his schedule did not permit him to be there.

Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, who attended the opening ceremony, said the museum is an important space.

“This is a museum that will provide information and an educational opportunity to so many Canadians, and it’ll make you proud to be a Canadian,” she said.

When asked about the protesters outside, Glover said she would like people to take a look at the museum before judging what’s inside.

Lightning rod for protests, questions

The country’s new national museum is located next to the Forks National Historic Site, where the Red and the Assiniboine rivers meet in downtown Winnipeg.

Designed by world-renowned architect Antoine Predock, the museum with its Tower of Hope and sweeping windows forms a new silhouette on the city’s skyline.

The museum has been a lightning rod for protests, and some academics say they’re concerned the content may be susceptible to interference by governments, donors and special interest groups.

“The most important concern is not the concern of individual communities who are disputing the exact manner in which their wrongs have been depicted, but rather the overall issue of independence,” said Michael Marrus, an expert on international human rights at the University of Toronto.

Glover said at the opening ceremony that the museum “must present a balanced and factually accurate account of both the good as well as the bad.”

Murray said the museum has not been subject to any interference, and the content does expose Canada’s human rights failures.

“You have to shine a light in some dark corners in Canada’s history because we have to know, I think, where we came from to know where we’re going,” he said.

Harper Solicits Research to Blame First Nations for Murdered, Missing and Traded Indigenous Women

Pam Palmater, Intercontinental Cry

Canada’s shameful colonial history as it relates to Indigenous peoples and women specifically is not well known by the public at large. The most horrific of Canada’s abuses against Indigenous peoples are not taught in schools. Even public discussion around issues like genocide have been censored by successive federal governments, and most notably by Harper’s Conservatives. Recently, the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights refused to use the term “genocide” to describe Canada’s laws, policies and actions towards Indigenous peoples which led to millions of deaths. The reason?: because that term was not acceptable to the federal government and the museum is after all, a Crown corporation.

Aside from the fact that this museum will be used as a propaganda tool for Canada vis-à-vis the international community, Harper’s Conservatives are also paying for targeted research to back up their propaganda as it relates to murdered, missing and traded Indigenous women. This is not the first time that Harper has paid for counter information and propaganda material as it relates to Indigenous peoples, and it likely won’t be the last. However, this instance of soliciting targeted research to help the government blame Indigenous peoples for their own victimization and oppression is particularly reprehensible given the massive loss of life involved over time.

The issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women was made very public by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) several years ago through their dedicated research, community engagement and advocacy efforts. Even the United Nations took notice and starting commenting on Canada’s obligation to address this serious issue. Yet, in typical Harper-Conservative style, once the issue became a hot topic in the media, they cut critical funding to NWAC’s Sisters in Spirit program which was the heart of their research and advocacy into murdered and missing Indigenous women.

To further complicate the matter, any attempts for a national inquiry into the issue has been thwarted by the federal government, despite support for such an inquiry by the provinces and territories. One need only look at the fiasco of the Pickton Inquiry in British Columbia to understand how little governments in Canada value the lives of Indigenous women, their families and communities. The inquiry was headed by Wally Oppal, the same man who previously denied the claims of Indigenous women who were forcibly sterilized against their knowledge and consent. The inquiry seemed more interested in insulating the RCMP from investigation and prosecution than it was about hearing the stories of Indigenous women.

Now, the Canadian public has to deal with a new chapter to this story – the sale of Indigenous women into the sex trades. The CBC recently reported that current research shows that Indigenous women, girls and babies in Canada were taken onto US ships to be sold into the sex trade. While this is not new information for Indigenous peoples, it is something that Canada has refused to recognize in the past. The research also shows that Indigenous women are brought onto these boats never to be seen from again.

The issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women has now expanded to murdered, missing and traded women. One might have expected a reaction from both the Canadian government and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). Yet, the day after the story hit the news, the AFN was tweeting about local competitions and the federal government was essentially silent. I say essentially, because while all of this was taking place, the federal government put together a Request for Proposals on MERX (#275751) to solicit research to blame the families and communities of Indigenous women for being sold into the sex trade.

Instead of making a call for true academic research into the actual causes and conditions around Indigenous women, girls and babies being sold into the sex trade, the federal government solicited research to prove:

(1) the involvement of family members in their victimization;

(2) the level to which domestic violence is linked to the sale of Indigenous women into the sex trade; and

(3) even where they are investigating gang involvement, it is within the context of family involvement of the trade of Indigenous women.

The parameters of the research excludes looking into federal and/or provincial laws and policies towards Indigenous peoples; funding mechanisms which prejudice them and maintain them in the very poverty the research identifies; and negative societal attitudes formed due to government positions vis-à-vis Indigenous women like:

  • rapes and abuse in residential schools;
  • forced sterilizations;
  • the theft of thousands of Indigenous children into foster care;
  • the over-representation of Indigenous women in jails;
  • and the many generations of Indigenous women losing their Indian status and membership and being kicked off reserves by federal law.

The research also leaves out a critical aspect of this research which is federal and provincial enforcement laws, policies and actions or lack thereof in regards to the reports of murdered, missing and traded Indigenous women, girls and babies. The epic failure of police to follow up on reports and do proper investigations related to these issues have led some experts to conclude that this could have prevented and addressed murdered, missing and traded Indigenous women. Of even greater concern are the allegations that have surfaced in the media in relation to RCMP members sexually assaulting Indigenous women and girls.

This MERX Request for Proposals is offensive and should be retracted and re-issued in a more academically-sound manner which looks to get at the full truth, versus a federally-approved pre-determined outcome.

It’s time Canada opened up the books, and shed light on the real atrocities in this country so that we can all move forward and address them.


Originally published at

Indigenous Nationhood