Human rights museum sparks debate over term 'genocide'

The debate over whether or not the word "genocide" should be used to describe the federal government's treatment of aboriginal people is heating up in Winnipeg.

Aboriginal leaders seek ‘genocide’ designation for past injustices by Canadian government

The debate over whether or not the word "genocide" should be used to describe the federal government's treatment of aboriginal people is heating up in Winnipeg.

The yet-to-open Canadian Museum for Human Rights is embroiled in a controversy over how they will represent Canada's past treatment of aboriginal people.

Fred Kelly is a residential school survivor and is among a group of First Nations people who believe the residential school system and other similar atrocities should be referred to as genocide.

"These [events] did happen, and the other five genocides that are recognized by Canada and the international community did happen, and the residential school history, the history of our people did happen -- that's a fact," he said. "We can go on and on reciting the litany of atrocities that took place that constitute the categories of genocide."

Kelly survived the residential school system and nutritional experiments conducted on aboriginal people without their knowledge in the 1940s and 1950s in Canada.

"That is genocide. That was an attempt at extermination based on hatred, based on racism, based on all of these negative factors that human beings exercise on other human beings," said Kelly.

But the Canadian Museum for Human Rights says it's not in a position to determine what constitutes a genocide and it doesn't plan to use the term to title the exhibit.

"We are not a court. We are not an academic institution. We rely on those sources for information to inform our exhibits," said Angela Cassie, a spokesperson for the museum.

Cassie said the museum will use the word when they discuss the aboriginal community's current fight to get recognition for the term.

"It is not necessarily an official definition at this time," she said. "Our objective of the museum is to inspire discussion and dialogue, and using Indian residential schools as an entry point is extremely important."

Robert Falcon Ouellette doesn't think the term will become official any time soon. Falcon Ouellette runs Aboriginal Focus Programs at the University of Manitoba.

"I don't think the Canadian public is ready to hear that message, and I don't think the Canadian government could be promoting that in their own museum," he said Friday.

Falcon Ouellette said the term genocide conjures up images Canadians don't typically associate with their country.

"Canadians, they believe we go over to other countries in order to stop these genocides from happening. We go over to Rwanda and Bosnia and Europe during the Second World War in order to stop the Holocaust," he said. "So here we are, perhaps, learning that we committed a genocide."

He continued, "If you hear the word genocide, it hits your imagination. It hits something visual in the cortex in your brain and what it conjures up is, you know, mass killings. It conjures up mass graves. It conjures up children being gassed in gas chambers."

Cassie said the museum's job is to inspire reflections and dialogue like Kelly and Falcon Oullette's, before and after the museum opens its doors.