It was to have been the very last time that a world gone mad would permit the attempted genocide of a people. For Jews it became known as the Holocaust or in Hebrew the Shoah; for the Roma, another group persecuted by the Nazis, it was called the “Porajmos” or the “Devouring.”
To be sure it was not the first time in human history when such evil walked the earth. Only a generation before the Nazis, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin attempted to rid the U.S.S.R. of a portion of the Ukrainian population by instigating a man-made famine known as the Holodomor.
Earlier in the 20th century, the fledgling Ottoman empire, trying to find ways to deal with its rebellious Armenian population slaughtered over one million men, women and children. Known as the Meds Yeghern, it was this genocide that Adolf Hitler, in preparing his own plans for mass murder, famously asked his leadership “who remembers the Armenians?”
So out of the ashes of the Holocaust where Hitler’s barbarians managed to murder almost two-thirds of European Jewry and just as many Roma, the cry “Never Again” was repeated and almost believed.
And yes, immediately following the war, with war crimes trials in full swing, with the reconstituted United Nations developing international law against genocide, humanity took a break from such evil.
Sadly, evil never leaves us. It may remain dormant for a while, but like a virus it needs only to find a willing host to yet again spread its poison.
It didn’t take long. Barely 20 years later as we entered the 1960s mass murder was once again in vogue. As the Vietnam War dragged on, it provided a shield for Cambodia’s brutal dictator Pol Pot to slaughter almost two million of his people. Buried in mass burial sites known as the “Killing Fields,” Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge seemed to have forgotten “Never Again.”
And let us not forget the wanton slaughter by the Pakistani army of upwards to 1.5 million Bangladeshis. And of course Mao Tse-tung was responsible for countless millions of deaths of Chinese during his rule.
More recently, Rwandan Hutus are said to have hacked to death close to 1.5 million Tutsis, fellow countrymen of a different tribe. And in the last decade, Sudan’s brutal Janjaweed are responsible for the mass murder of countless Darfurians. Indeed “Never Again” seems to have become “Again and Again.”
Canadian philanthropist and Manitoba politician, the late Izzy Asper was deeply troubled by such ugly inhumanity. He struggled to find a way to ensure that the lessons of history would become real for the next generation. And so was born the concept for a Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
To be situated in the center of Canada, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Asper’s dream was to have a place where the next generation can learn, and visualize a future; a place that would speak forthrightly of genocide, discrimination, and even Canada’s own human rights record both good and bad, while heralding human rights heroes; a place that would be a canary in the mine for future generations.
With $20 million dollars from his own foundation, this was to be a private/public partnership. And while Izzy Asper did not get to see his dream fulfilled in his lifetime, his daughter Gail took over the reins and today Canada has what is perhaps the quintessential museum celebrating and understanding human rights.
The first museum of its kind built outside of the National Capital Region, the CMHR is located on Treaty One territory where Louis Riel’s provisional government was situated.
It pays unique homage to Canada’s Indigenous people with a significant portion of space and exhibits highlighting Canada’s relationship, both its triumphs and tragic failures, with First Nations, Inuit and Metis.
I had the opportunity to visit the CMHR with our Chair Vahan Kololian a short time ago and we were both overwhelmed with what we saw.
The building itself is captivating thanks to the design by celebrated architect Antoine Predock. It encompasses in a very Canadian way all that we are. CMHR describes the journey and experience well:
“The visitors journey is an upwards one, progressing from darkness to light-a metaphor for the struggle toward fully realized human rights for all. The visitor enters between the building’s massive stone-clad Roots, then ascends via glowing alabaster rampways or elevator, encountering the uplifting Cloud of glass; the inspiring Manitoba limestone Mountain containing galleries; the peaceful Stuart Clark garden of Contemplation that features basalt, a stone found on every continent and ultimately reaches the soaring Israel Asper Tower of Hope.”
The myriad that is human rights is woven into the fabric of the CHRM. From Indigenous genocide in Canada to the Holocaust, Holodomor, Meds Yeghern and so much more. Challenges faced by the disabled, LGBTQ2S, the labour movement, virtually all aspects of human rights come to life. It’s hard to walk away the same person once you have gone through this unique Canadian gallery of rights.
Sadly, today human rights are still under attack from those who believe it stifles freedom. Can anything be further from the truth? Thankfully with the opening of the Canadian Human Rights Museum, Canada has become a focal point of understanding humanity through a vision whose time has come.
Bernie M. Farber is Executive Director of The Mosaic Institute. He is a native of Ottawa and a graduate of Carleton University. His long-spanning career in the not-for-profit sector includes the role of CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress (2005-2011) where he spearheaded multiple inter-faith initiatives and dialogues among diaspora groups in Canada including Rwandan genocide survivors and support for the Roma community. Most recently, Bernie has served as Senior Vice President of Gemini Power Corporation where he has been working in partnership with First Nations peoples towards economic development and community self-reliance in a way that respects both the environment and First Nations’ traditional values. Bernie is a recipient of the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal, the Zaionz Award for Jewish Communal Service, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the St John Provincial Commendation.
“Bernie’s View” is Bernie’s regular contribution to the Mosaic Institute blog. We hope you are stimulated and challenged; and we look forward to your comments in the Mosaic manner.