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