The Canadian Museum for Human Rights: A Work in Progress

Every story, every case history, every scrap of testimony is a gift to the future.

–Canadian Museum for Human Rights 

Ever since I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in grade eight, the issue of human rights has underscored my life. My novels all contain human rights threads and I’m a proud Fair Trade activist. So when I was chosen to be a touring author, in Manitoba, for TD Canada Book Week, I jumped at the chance to spend time in the newly completed Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Extraordinary architecture enclosing powerful galleries is how I would describe the first national museum built in forty years and the only one outside of Ottawa. Still, there are conspicuous absences in terms of historical events that illuminated human rights abuses, notably in Russia where citizens continue to live under an oppressive regime without basic rights including freedom of speech and fair trials. Fortunately, there is room to grow within this vital museum, and there are opportunities to evolve over time, as long as the curators are open to expanding the scope of the content.

Emerging like a bulb from the earth, this structure defines the downtown skyline, offering diverse views from various angles. Four “roots” anchor the museum to the ground which rises from the tips of the roots to the bulging structure which is not symmetrical in shape or design. On my tour, which includes visitors from Germany and North Dakota, the guide explains that architect Antoine Predock designed the museum to symbolize a mountain covered in snow on one side, using white concrete, and ice on the other side using mirrored glass. A glass tower, soaring from the top, the Israel Asper Tower of Hope, was created to reflect positive transformations in humanity, and the shape itself symbolizes changes in water. It’s constructed of custom-cut panes of glass, stands one hundred meters above the top of the museum’s structure, and provides incredible panoramic views of Winnipeg.

            Inside, round galleries are connected by white, marble ramps starting at the bottom and going up. At first, there seems to be a lot of empty space inside, and there are no exhibits in the traditional sense. Instead, there are concepts of human rights from the beginning of time around the world. What strikes me, as I gaze at the timeline in the first gallery, is the absence of pivotal Russian events. Though I may be biased, as the author of historical fiction books set in Russia, I still believe this country has committed and continues to commit the most atrocious human rights crimes. There is no mention of Bloody Sunday, the Moscow Insurrection, or the hundreds of monstrous pogroms in Russia that led to the death and injury of thousands of Jews, along with the abject destruction of homes and belongings. In fact, beginning with the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom, Jews began leaving Russia for Canada and the United States. Including my grandmother who fled to Shanghai, which accepted Jews without papers. And when she arrived in Montreal in the late 1930’s, she decided to conceal her Judaism because of the anti-Semitic climate.

            While there is an entire gallery devoted to the Holocaust, I think it might have been better to characterize it as an anti-Semitic gallery, identifying key events throughout history that have resulted in the violent culling of the Jewish population. After all, there are Holocaust museums throughout North America in Washington, New York and Chicago. Isn’t it time to dig a little deeper into the roots of anti-Semitism? To reveal the scar that tarnishes our history, how we turned ships of Jews away right before World War II, sending them to certain death back in Europe. Isn’t it time young Canadians know that we turned away more Jews during World War II than any other allied country?

            In the Canadian Journeys gallery, I discover unexpected parallels between Russian Jews living under the Tsar and the oppression faced by Canadian aboriginals. As I listen to an aboriginal woman recount her childhood growing up on leased Crown land, forced to move at the government’s whim, I realize that what she’s describing sounds identical to the Pale of the Settlement in Russia. Created by Catherine the Great in 1791, the Pale proved to be an effective attempt to segregate Jews and keep them out of big cities and off valuable farmland. Jews in Russia, as well as Poland and Lithuania, were forced to live in the Pale just as Canadian aboriginals were forced to live on leased crown land.

            I encounter another similarity when I come upon the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike alcove. Here, I learn that construction and factory workers toiled under harsh conditions for little pay. They decided to go on strike to improve their circumstances, with twenty-five thousand workers gathering at Market Square. Shots were fired leaving two strikers dead and at least thirty five police and strikers injured. This event was called Bloody Saturday.

            In Russia, strikes began in the early 1900’s, with factory workers struggling to feed their families while working insanely long hours in horrendous conditions. Police opened fire on the unarmed strikers regularly, killing and injuring thousands. On January 22, 1905, men, women and children, led by a priest named Father Gapon, marched peacefully to the Tsar’s Winter Palace to petition the Tsar for better living conditions and an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Police and Cossacks were waiting and opened fire as the marchers approached, killing and wounding approximately one thousand people. Bloody Sunday was a pivotal event that triggered the revolution.

            Things haven’t changed much in Russia since the early 1900’s. Today, with Putin in power, ordinary people are still living in poverty and read fairy tales about the government, stories that must be approved by officials. This means Putin’s approval rating has never been higher even though he treats his own people like pawns in his quest for power.

            As the Canadian Museum for Human Rights continues to evolve, I hope it will incorporate these essential stories of Russia, past and present, for two reasons. First, so that visitors have the opportunity to learn about this important piece of the human rights puzzle. Second, so that Russian immigrants to Canada, like my grandmother, feel that their story matters and that nobody forgets the atrocities people continue to face under an autocratic regime. Every story counts.



About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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