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Genocide against Indigenous Peoples recognized by Museum for Human Rights

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights now considers what has happened to Indigenous Peoples in Canada genocide. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg now deems the treatment of Indigenous Peoples in Canada a genocide, a change in position following criticism.

Previously, the museum had said Indigenous Peoples faced cultural genocide rather than genocide. Its stance — as noted in exhibits and presentations — has now shifted. 

“I think we recognize as a museum that our lack of clear acknowledgement of the genocide against Indigenous Peoples has caused hurt, and we’ve listened and we are working to do better,” said Louise Waldman, the museum’s manager of marketing and communications.

She said the change is a policy decision that comes from CEO John Young, who took over the job in 2015.

“I think for many years we didn’t think it was the role of a museum to declare this to be a genocide,” said Waldman.

“And I think now what’s happened is we understand it’s not just our role, but our responsibility and our commitment as a national institution that’s dedicated to human rights education.”

The conversation came about in a public but subtle way, after a recent visitor had asked the museum on Twitter if its stance had changed. The museum replied that it considers the entire colonial experience in Canada, from first contact to today, as genocide.

Waldman cited Indigenous children being apprehended by the child welfare system, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the over-representation of Indigenous people in the correctional system, and high suicide rates in Indigenous communities as ongoing problems in Canada.

“All of these things are playing out today as a direct result of the last hundreds of years of history,” said Waldman.


This photo was part of the Rights of Passage exhibition that was on display last year at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (Submitted by Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

The 1948 UN Convention on Genocide defines genocide as acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, including:

  • Killing members of the group.
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report in December 2015, it described the residential school system as cultural genocide. Waldman credits the work of the TRC for igniting conversations about genocide.

“It hasn’t been about blasting out public statements. It’s been more about starting dialogue and ensuring that we are listening and learning and growing and giving that opportunity to all our visitors, as well.”

The museum’s CEO, John Young, said there were misperceptions about what content people would find in the museum before the opening.

“I think we’ve been very reflective of not only where we are as a country, but where we intend to go, and have a conversation about genocide and genocidal policies toward Indigenous Peoples in Canada.”

Frank Chalk, a professor of history and director of research for the Montreal Institute of Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, said it was a good thing for the museum to recognize acts against Indigenous Peoples, such as residential schools, as genocide.

However, he said the museum’s stance that the entire colonial experience is genocide may “stretch the genocidal net so far that it will tear and break, and if everything becomes genocide, then nothing is genocide.

“If they truly adhere to the policy and the judgment that all contact from the earliest colonial period until today constitutes genocide — I don’t really see how they could justify that.”

‘They need to be loud about it’

Mi’kmaq lawyer and advocate Pam Palmater, chair of Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, said she has been to the museum several times.

She also wrote about the museum’s hesitance to use the term genocide in her 2015 book Indigenous Nationhood: Empowering Grassroots Citizens.

“The reason why I spoke out at that time was because they’re supposed to be a museum for human rights, and if the Museum for Human Rights can’t use the word genocide, how are we supposed to really educate Canadians about the genocide that actually happened in this country?” said Palmater.

pam palmater

‘To me, you shouldn’t be able to walk two feet into that museum without first seeing an exhibit on genocide,’ said Mi’kmaq lawyer Pam Palmater. (Pam Palmater)

She said the museum’s change in stance is a positive step, but hopes the conversation will be featured more prominently in the museum.

“To me, you shouldn’t be able to walk two feet into that museum without first seeing an exhibit on genocide.”

Palmater also hopes the museum incorporates the language change into all of its materials.

“They need to be public about it. They need to be loud about it,” she said.

“They need to include it in all of their education materials, and they need to have a prominent and permanent exhibit on genocide in Canada.”

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