'They need to know': Graphic content and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Last week was full of criticism for the CMHR. What needs to change?

Buffy Sainte-Marie said the museum needs to expand its coverage of residential schools

The sun sets beside the Tower of Hope atop the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

It's been two years since Buffy Sainte-Marie first stepped on stage at a concert heralding the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, as part of a series of well-attended opening ceremonies for the multimillion dollar museum.

The institution was already steeped in controversy: A Tribe Called Red was supposed to perform at the same concert, but cancelled days prior citing concerns about the portrayal of Indigenous issues. Dozens of protesters attended the events for the same reason, among many others.

Sainte-Marie was one of them. Although she was part of its events, the award-winning Cree musician and activist told media she felt the museum needed to more honest and informed, calling on staff to use the term "genocide" to describe residential schools and seek out a fuller understanding of the Indigenous experience.

Last week, the museum was the subject of a critical New York Times piece highlighting the controversy over its exhibits. Days later, Sainte-Marie stepped into the $351-million museum for the first time since 2014, invited to speak about her work in Indigenous education.

Initially eager to see what had changed, she said afterward the museum is still "too soft," and still avoids the tough material.

'They need to know'

"There was an electric chair involved. There were cattle prods. Terrible things," she said. "These things need to be here, because where else can they be? They need to be acknowledged and understood."

Her recommendation? An adults-only exhibit, showcasing the most graphic parts of what happened in residential schools.

Buffy Sainte-Marie says the CMHR needs to expand its coverage on residential schools. (Matt Barnes)

"It really should not be kept from educators, or from the public or from adults who want to make things better," she said. "They need to know."

According to Audrey Vermette, the director of programs and public affairs at the Canadian Museum Association, truly adult-only exhibits in museums are "extremely rare."

Vermette said it's common for museums to place warnings ahead of sensitive material, or to put sensitive material in a separate room or under a cloth or box, with signage telling viewers what they're about to see.

The Canadian Museum of History, the Diefenbunker in Ottawa and the Centre des sciences de Montréal all have examples, she said.

"Museums have the responsibility of advising their visitors," she said. "It is ultimately up to the visitor to decide if they want to bring in their children or not."

Angela Cassie, vice-president of public affairs for the CMHR, said the museum won't rule out an adults-only exhibit, but it's not something they've ever done before.

Opportunity to grow

While "adults only" may seem straight-forward, Cassie said the reality of executing it would be more difficult. Many students in high school already learn about residential schools, she said, and teens might want to see that part of Canadian history, too.

She said it's also difficult to know what should be concealed and what shouldn't. In a museum largely populated by human rights atrocities, visitors are often upset or triggered by many exhibits, not all of which are visually graphic.

As for including more graphic content, Cassie said the museum is open to it. She said she's heard all of Sainte-Marie's recommendations, and views them as an opportunity to improve.

"There are certainly ways for us to grow and deepen our content," she said. "What Buffy has provided are a few suggestions that would allow us to meet our objective of deepening our content and add to it."

Doorknobs, pieces from doors and ceiling fans are among the 887 objects contained in the Witness Blanket. (Jessica Sigurdson/CMHR)

The museum has been home to residential school objects with abusive histories already, she said.

"The Witness Blanket," for instance, was a large-scale art installation that featured straps and other instruments used by staff to abuse children that the museum has showcased in the past.

The museum also includes "Breaking the Silence," a series of videos in which residential school survivors recount their experiences. In some of the videos, the speakers describe the experience as genocide.

Cassie said more sensitive material is usually concealed behind walls in some galleries, subtly signaling to visitors the content is graphic or triggering.

'A living museum'

Cassie said the museum is a work in progress and open to change.

"We never developed this museum to say, 'The doors are open and we're done,'" she said.

At a conference for Indigenous elders on language preservation, Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak said she supported Sainte-Marie's suggestion.

"As adults, we need to understand the extreme nature of what happened in residential schools to a lot of our Indigenous people, and it's not appropriate to show it to children that are innocent, even though many of the atrocities happened to children," she said.

"It's part of the Canadian history, unfortunately," she said. "This is what's made our country today what it is."

AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak at MFNERC's Circle of Knowledge & Practices Conference.

At the same conference, Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said he also supported changes to the museum's content.

"The CMHR should be speaking about these matters a little more," he said. "I think (content should be) a little more informed, but also provide opportunities for Canadians to recognize the depth and the magnitude of the genocide that actually happened."

Nepinak said he meets with CMHR staff on a regular basis to discuss development.

"It's a living museum," he said. "There's people there that are committed and dedicated to trying to build that message there. But sometimes it's just not being heard very well."