On behalf of the board, executive and staff of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, thank you for the invitation to be with you today. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Coast Salish peoples whose territory we are in this morning. Merci de nous accueillir. (Thank you for having us here.)
Je désire aussi saluer les ainés et survivants qui sont présents ici. J’applaudis votre force et votre courage. (I would also like to acknowledge the elders and survivors present. I applaud both your strength and courage). Finally, I would like to thank the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for organizing this event and inviting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to participate.
We at the museum recognize the work of the TRC as essential to crafting a more equitable future for aboriginal people and a stronger Canada for all citizens. It is our strong belief as an organization that our work at the museum can both complement and directly support the TRC, and I’m grateful for the chance to have a broader discussion around some of these issues today.
It is a unique privilege of my role as the Chief Executive Officer of Canada’s new rights museum to be party, each day, to an evolving discussion about Canada’s human rights future. We are fortunate to have had so many individuals share their stories with our team; stories of struggle, and challenge, but also stories of triumph and resilience.
These stories serve to remind me daily of two very distinct realities: First, we have come an awfully long way down this road toward truly universal human rights. And second, we still have a long way to go – on a encore beaucoup de chemin à parcourir (we still have a long way to go).
It’s my conviction, however, that we are, at the very least, walking on the right path, and pointed in the right direction, and I base that comment in part on three things happening concurrently – all of them in Winnipeg, incidentally – that just never would have happened even a decade or two ago and give cause for some cautious optimism.
En premier lieu – la création du Musée canadien pour les droits de la personne. (Firstly, the creation of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights). The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will open the door to a new and much wider understanding of aboriginal people in Canada and of the residential school experience. More importantly, the museum will nourish a new national discussion around ensuring a more equitable future for indigenous people in Canada, and will foster new channels of understanding between Canada’s aboriginal and non-aboriginal populations. This is something we’re already working on, and every step we’ve taken has been done in direct partnership with our First Nations, Métis and Inuit advisors; on our staff, on our Elders Advisory Council and Aboriginal Youth Councils, and in the wider community. So that’s one.
En deuxième lieu - cette Commission (Secondly, this commission). A commission with the mandate and the means to fully illuminate the residential schools experience is long overdue in Canada. But this vital work has now begun, and there is no question that the work of the TRC will ultimately prove historic and indeed, change the future.
En troisième lieu – (Thirdly), there is an unprecedented cultural exhibition taking place right now in Winnipeg in multiple venues throughout the city and includes the work of more than 30 indigenous artists from all over the world. The show is called Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years, and its focus is squarely on the future of indigenous people, in a city that the curators note “epitomizes the future of aboriginal people in Canada.” The several dozen aboriginal artists who have contributed work for this exhibition are forging a new dialogue between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities, and these artists, many of them young people, are quite literally providing us an illustration of a very different future. These aboriginal artists are out to change the world, and their conviction and commitment is mirrored both at the TRC and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
That all of this would be happening at the same time, in one city, is itself historic. This kind of broad dialogue around contemporary aboriginal issues would have been unimaginable even a half-generation ago, and it says something very clearly, I believe, about the possibility we have before us to ensure that the future for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people is a future founded on equality, opportunity, understanding and respect. And perhaps of equal importance, it’s the possibility of ensuring that no generation of non-aboriginal Canadians again grows up as mine did: never having had meaningful insight into the lived experiences of Canada’s aboriginal peoples.
I am often asked where in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights that the evolving story of Aboriginal People in Canada will be told, and there are two answers to this. The first answer is everywhere, and that’s because the Museum’s home is on Treaty 1 land, and the greetings inscribed right in the museum’s entryway will ensure that this is known by every visitor who walks through our doors. The museum sits directly at the doorstep of the site of the Métis occupation of Upper Fort Garry and Louis Riel’s provisional government that gave birth to the Province of Manitoba as we know it today. So in this respect, an Aboriginal identity is woven into the museum’s very foundations and cannot be separated from how we identify as an institution.
Many in this room will know that in every bore hole that was dug for the museum’s piles and caissons, over 500 holes in all, a medicine bag of sage, sweetgrass, cedar and tobacco blessed by an elder was placed in the ground before the concrete went in. The museum will also have an outdoor terrace intended to be used as a place for visitors to smudge, and that terrace will be lined with sacred plants.
It is our endeavour to ensure that an indigenous point of view is inherent in all aspects of the museum’s design and construction. And we have been clear from the museum’s very inception that there will be a permanent zone dedicated solely to indigenous stories.
We recognize, however, that any fulsome discussion of Canada’s broader human rights history would need to implicitly include discussion of Indian Residential Schools, and it’s for this reason that the residential school story will be told in at least three different zones within the museum – not just in the zone dedicated to indigenous peoples. In other words, the museum will not shy away from the reality that the broader story of Canada cannot be told without direct reference to the displacement of tens of thousands of aboriginal people, and more than that, a deliberate effort to expunge aboriginal culture from the Canadian landscape.
We at the museum fully recognize that many generations of non-aboriginal Canadians went to school and learned about the history of this country without any meaningful reference to residential schools and the displacement of aboriginal peoples. This alone is an historic injustice, and it’s something we believe the museum has an obligation to help correct.
If I may go one step further, we at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights know that we have a distinct opportunity to ensure that the opening of our doors marks a clear turning point in Canadians’ understanding of Indian Residential Schools, and more importantly, the process of reconciliation. It is central to our mission at the museum to make sure that our opening marks the beginning of a new era of knowledge, understanding and dialogue around residential schools, and concurrently, a new era of open discussion founded on respect, compassion, healing, and trust. It is our clear objective at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to shine the bright light of truth on what took place in the residential school system, and we know that light must also help illuminate the path of healing and reconciliation. As a human rights museum, we see this not just as something we can do, but something that we must do.
Now, speaking more specifically, within the museum (the story of residential schools will be told in at least three distinct places) - l’histoire des pensionnats autochtones sera racontée à un minimum de trois endroits différents au sein du Musée : the area which will examine Canada’s human rights culture; the area that will explore mass atrocities; and the area that will provide a forum for visitors to explore peace and human rights.
In this first zone – where we explore Canada’s Human Rights Culture – we will focus the exhibits on helping visitors better understand the processes and experiences that have come to shape Canada’s imperfect and evolving human rights culture. Visitors would learn, for example, of the Canadian author of the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but would also learn of historical incidents of rights violations, including violations directly sponsored by the state; namely, the creation of residential schools. In this zone, we will examine how Indian Residential Schools were intended to essentially remove an aboriginal identity from Canada. We will look at the historic context of Canada’s and the churches’ specific policies to assimilate, Christianize and civilize. This is the story of government paternalism and colonization; a story that will be told in both an historic and contemporary context.
In the Mass Atrocity zone, the residential-school focus will move away from the systemic actions of church and state, and toward primary-source evidence regarding these atrocities. We will look specifically at the physical and sexual abuse that happened in residential schools. We will look at the missing children of the residential school system; children who are buried in unmarked gravesites or who did not return after the schools were closed. We will examine how eugenics and forced sterilization were used on the young aboriginal population to attempt to rid the country of the “Indian problem;” that term used so cavalierly even in the highest echelons of the Canadian government.
The role of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is to create a space for dialogue and reflection, and the area in the museum for the exploration of peace and human rights will be a place visitors can engage with others in a creative and participatory way. It will focus on notions of action that are crucial to the protection, promotion and achievement of human rights – creativity, empowerment, dialogue, relationship-building, agency, identity, awareness, education and collaboration. In this area we will look at the transitional justice model of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and examine grassroots initiatives, including the work of poverty-reduction groups and social-justice organizations that model these important ideas of action and empowerment.
It is our aim to foster both understanding and dialogue around residential schools, but I want to also acknowledge that we at the museum recognize and appreciate that earning the trust of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit people must also be an essential aspect of everything we do at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (This is a central part of our mandate) - C’est un des éléments centraux de notre mandat, and we see it as our obligation to aboriginal people in Canada to do all we can to cultivate and build that sense of trust.
I spoke earlier of a few of the ways we are endeavouring to do this, but in specific regard to the residential school experience, we are working to build a sense of trust in two ways. The first is through continued collaboration and direct partnership with the aboriginal community, and that includes relationships like the kind that have already been formed between our research staff at the museum and your staff at the TRC. Ultimately, this kind of partnership will make both of our organizations stronger.
Secondly, and more importantly, the museum must work to ensure that in recounting the residential school experience it is the voices of aboriginal people themselves that are heard. What this will mean in practice is that our visitors will see and hear many first-person accounts, and that visitors to the museum will learn of residential schools from an aboriginal point of view, and that we will maintain, wherever we can, the original versions of stories told in an aboriginal language.
As well, we recognize – and this will also be the reality of the national research centre – that the story of Indian Residential Schools has never before entered the mainstream Canadian consciousness in a sustained and meaningful way. In fact, we are starting from a place where many in the non-aboriginal community continue to view the residential school experience as something deep in our history, when in fact the impact of Indian Residential Schools is felt in very real and tangible ways among aboriginal people right now. We know that for many of our visitors, all they will have learned about residential schools is what they may have seen or read in the media, so we feel a particular obligation to do all we can to get it right.
As we continue to move ahead, my staff and I look forward to continuing the discussion with the TRC and all of our partners towards the development of the national research centre. Already, there is an understanding that the flow of information, research and data will be made as seamless and fluid as possible, so that we can continue to contribute to each other’s success. We will continue the dialogue around how the research mandate of the CMHR can complement that of the National Research Centre, and we will continue to work together to ensure that everyone in Canada, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal, can have ready access to the abundance and authentic information we will together be able to provide. (The museum, you may know, is now about two years away from opening) - Le Musée, vous le savez peut-être, ouvrira ses portes dans environ deux ans, and I think we are fortunate to have both the CMHR and National Research Centre under development at the same time.
We have a unique and in many ways, historic, opportunity, and I know we will each meet the mandates set out for us by continuing to move forward together.
Let me close by saying that the museum remains fully available to the TRC, and we are committed to continuing to ensure that our experiences and the knowledge we gather at the museum can be fully shared with you as the creation of a national research centre moves ahead. We are very proud of the mutually beneficial partnership that continues to grow, and certainly should the national research centre have its home in Winnipeg, it will be able to continue to take direct advantage of the knowledge base and resources the museum continues to assemble. We have a mandate to be an open, publicly accessible and welcoming space, and consistent with that is our ongoing willingness to do all we can to ensure that the national research centre will enjoy the same success that we envision for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Merci de m’avoir accordé votre attention. (Thank you for your attention). Merci. (Thank you).