Speech delivered by President and CEO Stuart Murray to University of Manitoba "Thinking about Ideas Museums" speaker series, September 9, 2011

Tags for Speech delivered by President and CEO Stuart Murray to University of Manitoba "Thinking about Ideas Museums" speaker series, September 9, 2011

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Winnipeg, Manitoba

Hello. Bonjour. Thank you for inviting me to join you today. This lecture series this open, public, critical dialogue around this messy web of issues that sits beneath the banner of human rights in my view speaks fully both to the mandate and the responsibility that we have at the museum to inquire, to challenge and to have the courage to shine a light into dark corners, even when it's not easy to do so, with the hope that our inquiry will shed a little more light on how we can together help craft a brighter future. I feel exceptionally privileged to have been asked to speak with you. C'est pour moi un très grand privilège d'avoir été invité à vous adresser la parole.

I remember vividly being on the other side of the lectern as a young undergraduate here at the U of M, being challenged in a way that was very new to me. To be allowed to ask and to question, and to learn to not be afraid that a new discovery might just cause a change in how I looked at the world.

Of course, it was the early 1970s, and my quest for discovery and my love of music took me out of the lecture hall and onto the road as a manager for rock bands like Blood, Sweat and Tears. I learned a lot doing that too.

But there was a seed planted during my time here at the university — I hope that's the case for any young student at any place of higher learning — that has stayed with me my entire adult life. If nothing else, that seed has served as an abiding reminder that only by being willing to challenge assumptions and leaving ourselves open to new means of understanding can we find the kind of common ground that lets us address our biggest challenges; the kinds of uniquely human challenges that often seem so immeasurably daunting, but nonetheless demand our energy and our will should we hope to see this world become a little more just in our own lifetimes.

I'd like to be able to tell you that I'm the brains in my family, but that title belongs to my daughter who is currently fully engrossed in completing her Ph D. If I've learned anything from her experiences, it's that graduate‐level study is not for the impatient or for the faint of heart, as I trust many of you in this room would attest.

But I do know that when it comes to human rights, which by its nature is such a deeply human, deeply personal and often intensely emotional issue that we benefit from having the informed guidance that sound scholarship and academic inquiry provide us. More than benefit, really. It's a vital piece of this undertaking.

In fact, this "foundation of education" as we often call it at the museum, must in the very fullest sense be a central pillar of the museum's work. So I'm grateful to you, and especially to all those who will be sharing their insight and expertise throughout this lecture series, for helping build and shape a Canadian Museum for Human Rights that will inspire new ways of thinking, and beyond that, inspire action. I hope you will see yourself as a partner of the museum, and it is my privilege to tell you that the work that you're doing is essential to us being able to do ours. 

I know some of you have already engaged directly with the museum's staff researchers, and I'm very pleased that some of our people will be taking part in this lecture series to share some of their insights and to talk in detail about the museum's approach to scholarship, and how we're working to forge two‐way relationships between the museum and the wider academic community.

I'd like to spend our time today telling you not so much about the progress you can see from the outside of the museum although I'm always happy to talk about what makes this majestic building so iconic but I thought you'd be most interested to discuss some of the things we've been working on on the inside.

I want to share with you some of the things that I think have been remarkably successful, some of the things that have been controversial, and then I want to ensure I don't go on too long so that we have time for some discussion at the end. I think it's important that I hear from you. To me, a conversation is always more fruitful than a speech, and I'll be happy to answer any questions you have.

I'm going to start by talking to you about what it is we hope to achieve with this unprecedented project called the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. And I'll speak to each in more detail, but if you'll allow me to generalize, our aspirations fall under two main umbrellas.

The first that I'm going to tell you about is somewhat secondary to our core mandate, but it's the one that often gets people fired up and excited about the project, so I'll touch briefly on it first. We want the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to be a major invigorating force for the city of Winnipeg. And not only that, we want that force to create a ripple that reverberates across Canada. 

I think many of you might be familiar with the name Bilbao, the city in the Basque Country in northern Spain. I travelled to Bilbao last year, and one of the things that strikes you when you visit Bilbao is how much it has in common with our city; with Winnipeg. Bilbao is not a large city. Like us, the population is well under a million people. Like Winnipeg, it's a somewhat geographically isolated city. There's no major urban centre right next door, in the way that an Edmonton might have a Calgary, or an Ottawa might have a Montreal. None of those kinds of economic and cultural corridors that might naturally form.

Bilbao is a river city. Rivers wind through it much as they do here, and, comparatively speaking, in the winter Bilbao is quite cold. Granted, you could get by in Bilbao with a hat and gloves instead of needing the down‐filled parka from Mountain Equipment Co‐op, but their city is considerably colder than the Spanish cities in the south. For years, Bilbao chugged along, the people did well enough, and there were some superb natural amenities and attractions. But then, in 1997, what happened?

On the banks of a river, right near the downtown, the Guggenheim Museum opened, and it's no exaggeration to say Bilbao was never the same again. 

The museum averages just under a million visitors per year. And you can imagine the impacts of those kinds of numbers on a mid‐sized city. The city's waterfront was redeveloped. A rapid transit system was unveiled. A performance centre opened. Parks were renewed. The influx of tourists, students and scholars translated into a need for more direct flights, and the cumulative public benefit of the myriad spinoffs from this one museum is immeasurable.

So, can Winnipeg become Bilbao?

We should be cautious in our speculation, but a provincial study of potential visitorship to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights pegged visitor numbers at 250,000 per year, with a caveat that this was a conservative estimate. But think about this. Imagine what it means to our city, to our downtown, to our universities, to Winnipeg's reputation abroad, if we're attracting a quarter‐million people or more to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. In real terms, when an overseas academic with an interest in human rights is planning a sabbatical, or a young student with a passion for social change is applying to graduate school I want our city and our universities to be the place they think of first.

And when a family abroad is planning a vacation to Canada, we know they're going to visit Toronto and we know they're going to visit Vancouver. But we're going to provide a pretty compelling reason to also spend a few days in the middle of the country, here in Winnipeg, the city that we are committed to having known as the human rights capital of Canada. 

Much of this civic upswing is already happening, or at least at the beginning stages. Between the return of NHL hockey, the museum, the new Bomber stadium here at the UofM, our new airport and some promising signs of new development in our downtown, as a city we're already finding our footing for the big steps forward we're about to take.

But I also have no misconceptions that a vital prerequisite for the museum attracting tourists and scholars is to first earn their trust by showing publicly that the museum is being built to the very highest ideals of inclusion, participation and equity of representation. Because if we can't earn that trust, that goodwill, then what have we got?

We know we can't just build a museum and announce that we're the new capital for human rights. No. We have to earn the right to that distinction. And we take this very seriously.

We recognize that we need to show that we're building this place with the doors wide open; with an open, inclusive dialogue; with opportunities for the public to connect with us, to talk to us and to critique us. And we need to do all this so that we can ensure the Canadian Museum for Human Rights can make good on its second aim, the big one, which is to be a genuine catalyst for change; a centre of hope and optimism; a 160,000-square-foot action centre where people from all walks of life can truly feel that they're not only part of something but that they have a direct stake in helping build a better world.

Now, this is very different than the museum we could have built. It would, after all, be a still‐worthy exercise to build a museum that essentially serves as a learning centre. And there would be nothing inherently wrong with that. Many museums are built this way. But we think that we have an opportunity and even a responsibility to go a step further, to empower our visitors, and to not only bring them to the museum to learn, but to put the pen in their hand and invite them to help write the next chapter of Canada's human rights history.

Is this the easiest route? No, it's not. But is it the correct route? We believe it is. And that's what we've been told by Canadians again and again.

As we've been advised by many voices — I think quite rightly — the notion of human rights inherently invokes a sense of action. In the plainest language, I can't just tell you that I believe in human rights. That's only half of it.

I could tell you that I believe in environmental protection, and yes, learning more about environmental issues would be a critical first step. But for any change to take place, the thinking needs to be followed by the practice.

So promoting and expanding human rights in the world demands a shift in both thought and action. And sure, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights would be a somewhat simpler project if we weren't concerned about this second piece; this changing the world part. But this is the mandate we've undertaken to fulfill. This is what Canadians expect.

As academics you recognize that if your research furthers understanding in your field of study, even a bit, then your research has fully proven its worth. Many might argue — quite rightly, I think — that if research were only to expand one's own understanding, it would still have been a worthy pursuit. But if, as a result of that same academic inquiry, someone is then impelled to look at a small corner of the world just a little differently and some subtle but meaningful change in behaviour then follows that really underscores like nothing else that the effort has been worthwhile.

At the Canadian Museum for Human Rights we must do both. We must become a centre of excellence for learning, teaching and scholarship. But we must also empower our visitors, and provide outlets for their knowledge, and encourage and provoke the kinds of actions that can together topple the barriers that still stand in the way of universal rights.

So what does this mean in practice? At its core, it means taking opportunities for learning and then building in opportunities for dialogue. We have to talk about these issues to affect change. We have to give our visitors opportunities to talk about the responsibility each of us bears individually to protect and promote human rights, and also the responsibility that we have collectively, as a community. We have to forge a dialogue about how we can recognize violations to human rights and what we then do. We have to talk about how we create a climate or a culture of human rights; a climate that proactively guards against the infringement of human rights.

And — because the notion of human rights might mean something different to you than it does to the person you're sitting next to — we have to nourish a conversation about just what it is we mean when we talk about human rights. Because those different perspectives are essential, they're critical, but we also need some shared language because the advancement of human rights tends not to be a solo effort. Identifying common ground is key.

I look to you in this room to help steer part of this conversation, and I think this lecture series will only continue to help point the way to some of these answers. And they're great questions, in my view. What are human rights? What do human rights mean to you? 

We can certainly look to documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to help us with a common understanding, but how does that extend to a contemporary application?

As CEO of the museum, when I hear someone use the term "human rights," there's no singular definition that comes to mind. To me, human rights is an umbrella term for language rights; gender rights; the rights of people with disabilities; indigenous rights. But it might mean something different to you.

Also: do we differentiate between human rights, say, and social justice? If so, how do we? Where do we first affix our gaze and direct our energies? And how far do we go? What's the balance between addressing what some might perceive as a right, in this country, to decent child care, with the right to clean water or basic education in a country on the other side of the world?

Well, I'd argue there's no answer that isn't legitimate, and perhaps it's the case that all of these issues aren't that different at all. Perhaps it's the case that these particular issues are all illustrations of the tendency for women to be disproportionately affected by poverty. Or not. But what is clear is that identify common understanding and empathy for opposing points of view around these issues the more we talk about them.

So the museum must be a forum for conversation, and the museum must take very seriously its relationships with people like you in this room, because study and scrutiny and debate is what universities do best.We at the museum are exceptionally grateful to have had such a rich wealth of expertise to help guide the dialogue we've been building so far.

I mentioned earlier the notion that we at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights must build trust in order to succeed in meeting our mandate. Listening and learning has been a vital part of that process. Building a critical dialogue has been a vital part of that process. We've got an incredibly talented staff at the museum; people who have worked and studied all over the world. I'm proud of their work. But each of us at the CMHR recognizes that this museum belongs to the people of Canada, and that means that consulting with Canadians must guide us as we build.

Dr. Rhonda Hinther, our head of exhibits research, who we were very fortunate to steal back from Carleton University and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, will be taking part in this lecture series in a couple weeks, and I know she will speak in detail about the research philosophy we've adopted at the museum, which has external partnership and a participatory approach to research as its base.

And while we have a responsibility to build alliances with universities across Canada and abroad, we are thrilled that each of our universities here in Manitoba has embraced this project so heartily, offering expertise, encouragement and constructive criticism. Between the Centre for Human Rights Research here at the U of M, Global College at the U of W, the passion around these issues we've seen from our partners at Université du St. Boniface and Red River College, I don't think there's any question about Winnipeg becoming the known epicentre for human rights research in Canada. Il ne fait aucun doute à mon avis que Winnipeg est en voie de devenir le centre de la recherche sur les droits de la personne au Canada.

It was your Arthur Mauro who was among the first to articulate this vision, and we're seeing it starting to happen. We're not there yet, but we're certainly well on our way.

Beyond academic circles, we've had an equally fruitful discussion. I am very proud to tell you that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has now consulted with nearly 3,000 Canadians in more than 20 cities, in roundtables, in workshops and one-on-one.This public engagement exercise is essential to what we do, and it's ongoing.Do we make ourselves vulnerable when we do this? Yes we do. Do we open ourselves to criticism, sometimes intense criticism, when we do this? Yes we do. But is there any other way to ensure we can build trust, resolve issues and learn from the lived experiences of Canadians from all walks of life?No. There's not. You have to get out there and listen to people.

This is messy stuff. There's no question. And I think Dan Lett was right on the mark in his Free Press column this past week1 about the complexities not just of building the museum, but the complexities even of having a thoughtful discussion and debate.

Whether we like it or not, the reality is that this is not an easy discussion because these are not easy issues. Even this lecture series — an informed, thoughtful, largely scholarly discussion — is not going to be all wine and roses. So what do we do about this? Should these complexities impel us to stifle discussion and debate because we happen to feel uncomfortable? Or, should we attempt to address these complexities and these challenges directly by dealing with them head on and talking our way through these sticky issues with the hope that by expanding the conversation, we can identify an ever‐larger patch of common ground and common understanding?

I hope that all of us can be united in a belief that the correct answer is the latter. 

This public engagement effort is also important because this exercise is the museum's opportunity to clarify what the Canadian Museum for Human Rights aspires to be.

There's a misconception, and I accept that we need to continue to work to be clearer on this, that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is primarily a centre for the commemoration of genocides. Or in other words, a museum not of human rights, but of human wrongs that looks back at all the terrible things humans have done to each other over the years. Well, no. That's not our role. And yes, it's vital that we pay close attention to the lessons of history, but memorializing human atrocity isn't what we're about. 

For two reasons. First, because there are many, many museums and memorials like the Slavery Museum in Liverpool and other museums of conscience that already do this particularly well. But second, because our M.O. isn't to say, "Gee, isn't it terrible that this awful thing happened," but rather to instead say, "How do we construct societies where these kinds of rights violations don't happen again in the future? How do we build a culture that better safeguards universal rights?"

So if we're talking about the Holocaust, or the Holodomor, or the anti‐Sikh riots, or the eviction of black Canadians from Africville, or the Chinese head tax, or the atrocity of residential schools in this country the museum's role must be to go beyond affirming that people suffered greatly, and instead harness the power of their stories; these very human, extraordinarily dignified accounts of lived experience so that we can then commit ourselves to building the kind of human rights culture that can better recognize the actions and behaviours that lead to rights violations when those behaviours are left unchecked.

So if you look at the role of the Holocaust in the museum, as one important example, commemorating the suffering of the victims isn't going to be the aim.
But, examining how a modern, advanced, democratic society could so quickly and violently collapse into genocide?

Well, there's an exceedingly relevant lesson there. In the same way, there are lessons to be learned from other past abuses that our visitors will find inside the walls of the museum.

But comparing the suffering of one individual over another?Not here. Not ever. That's never been our game. And if we need to be clearer on that, then so we will. There's no question that I've heard concern, as one somewhat prominent example, from the Ukrainian‐Canadian community. 

When I'm having a meeting with Paul Grod at the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, or when I'm delivering remarks to the Ukrainian community here in Winnipeg during Malanka, the new year's celebration, I hear very valid concern over what people are reading about in the paper. And it reminds me how important it is to continue to have this discussion about what the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is and what it isn't.

Will this be a place to rank genocides and compare suffering? No. Absolutely not.

Will it be a hub for conversation about how we, how each one of us, can have a role in advancing human rights and can together carve out a world that's more equitable and more just? Yes. This is our aim. 

I also want to be clear that there's no one singular road map that guides every detail of our work. 

We had, as one example, a very esteemed group of human rights advocates and scholars that was called a content advisory committee. They had a mandate — their work came to an end about 18 months ago — and they had some very fulsome, very productive and very rewarding conversations with a tremendous number of Canadians. A little over a year ago they submitted their findings and recommendations in a report. The museum welcomed this report as sound advice and we're grateful to the content advisory committee for their work. Much of it has proven helpful.

But we don't carry a bible at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The work of the content advisory committee isn't the definitive, unassailable guide on how to build a human rights museum. If it were, we'd have no interest or need to undertake an exhaustive research exercise, or to have consulted the hundreds of Canadians we've spoken with since the work of this committee wrapped up, or to do things like launch our really neat oral histories project that we initiated just this year.

In my view, it's our responsibility to keep listening and to continue building a dialogue and to show a willingness to address concerns head on so that we can earn that all‐important public trust. And by the way, if you hear something, or you're worried about something, or you want to know more about something, get in touch with us. Ask me, or ask Rhonda, Tricia or Armando when they're here over the coming weeks as part of this series, or find us on Facebook, or call us directly.

There are a few things that I do want to talk briefly about that I think illustrate well how serious we are about building trust by doing things right.

First, our growing relationship with Canada's First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples. When you come to visit it the museum, you are setting foot on Treaty One land. You are also at the doorstep of the historic 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.

It's our view that these facts alone give us a profound responsibility, and it's for these reasons that the museum must and will have an Aboriginal identity woven into the museum's very foundations. 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.

Of course, while these things are important, and they are, they're also not enough. More important is a willingness to deal directly with the pervasive barriers confronting Aboriginal people still today. 

I grew up in Saskatchewan in the middle of four reserves, but I was never taught about residential schools. Many, if not most of us, in this room grew up without ever really having to confront the legacy of the residential school system. The majority of Canadians have been taught exceedingly little about the enormity of the impact that the residential school system continues to have on Aboriginal peoples still today. It is a national shame that has been relegated to dark corners for far too long. It's something that has finally begun to change, and we are intent on seeing this change accelerate the day the Canadian Museum for Human Rights opens its doors.

We take this very seriously. I made this commitment in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Vancouver, and I affirm it today.

In practice, what this means at the museum is going beyond the symbolic and ensuring that Aboriginal people are not just playing a consulting role but actively helping lead this process. We have a position at the museum that we call our Executive Advisor and Lead on Indigenous Relations. This is an executive‐level position. Working with our Indigenous Advisor we also have a group of Elders and youth who provide us guidance and advice — they have taken up the challenge, very ably, to help ensure we can get this right. 

There is no question that the amount of healing, the amount of trust‐building, the amount of conciliation is enormous. But we have to try. We have to be unafraid, as I said earlier, to shine a light into these dark corners. We have to knock down the stereotypes and to kick over the barriers in order to create a room where differences and diversity can co‐ exist.

This is not about sympathy for those who have been oppressed. But it is about empowerment and it is about building bridges and confronting the fact that Aboriginal peoples in this country have been an excluded "other" for too long. I'm grateful to the many voices, both Aboriginal and non‐Aboriginal, who are not just helping us with this process but leading it, and helping ensure it's done right.

Second: I'm proud of the work we're doing around accessibility, and ensuring that everyone who comes through our doors can participate as an equal. It's our view that if we're building a human rights museum, than our commitment to human rights and breaking down barriers has to be manifest in everything we do. If you come through our doors in a wheelchair, there will be nowhere in the museum that you cannot go. If you visit our web site but cannot see, there will be nothing online that you cannot read. If you're at one of our touch‐screen exhibits but you live with a motor‐skill impairment, there will be no content that you cannot enjoy just like everyone else.

The very heart of our purpose at the museum is to confront barriers, so where better to start than with our own facility and with our own content?

I acknowledge the commitment of the community of persons with disabilities both here in Manitoba and outside the province who have been so willing to share their expertise and experiences with us. And I also want to acknowledge the members of our newly formed National Testing Group, which is a group of Canadians, all of whom use an adaptive technology to access electronic information, who will test all of our digital content to ensure it's as widely accessible as we can make it. 

As content becomes increasingly digital, this type of input is invaluable to a museum like ours, and we're grateful to have partners who will help ensure we can really raise the bar when it comes to the democratization of digital information. It's our view that we should aim to set the highest standard we can at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in areas like universality of access. It's important for our museum, but it also raises the bar for other institutions. And we want to share this know‐how.

Third: I think we're on the right track with the role education is already playing within the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. This is key. As majestic as the physical structure itself will be, we believe unequivocally that the museum must have an impact that reaches well beyond our physical walls. The relationships that we've built with schools, teachers, education ministers from across Canada, school trustees, education thought leaders and students themselves means we're going to be able to make good on the commitment we have to bring more human rights learning into the school curriculum. 

You know, kids get this. Tolerance; empathy; understanding; respect; the embrace of difference. Kids are often way ahead of the adults with these concepts. And kids who learn to celebrate difference and recognize injustice and inequality are the kids who are more likely to grow up to be accepting, understanding adults. What we in this room call expressions of prejudice, kids call bullying. But they get it; and they get intuitively that the moment to stand up for human rights isn't when they're 18, or 25 or 40. It's now.

I'm a generally positive person. But if you'll permit a moment of negativity, I've got to tell you, one of the things I really can't stand is groups of young people being addressed as the "leaders of tomorrow." It's my sincere hope that each classroom we visit is full of students who will indeed be known as leaders years from now. It's my sincere hope that the students here in this room will indeed be known as leaders when you're as old as I am. But we can't wait until tomorrow. The world needs you now. We need your leadership, your ideas, your commitment to change the world right now. That's the message we take to schools, and it's a critical message I want to underscore with you today.

And we've actually recently welcomed a new member of staff, a very accomplished and experienced educator with a strong background in human rights issues, whose job it is to ensure these strong relationships with schools and universities only continue to grow.

So look: this unprecedented project is now well underway. There are some tremendous things happening already. We have some legitimate challenges — challenges we welcome — and in my view there are some areas where we're really setting a new standard, a higher bar, and showing that it's possible to do things more inclusively, more equitably and in a way that contributes to this notion that we really can cultivate a culture of human rights. But like anything, the museum is only as strong as the people behind it, and the ideas and the commitment they bring.

So I want to finish by again asking not simply for your support, but for your participation. Not just your unbridled enthusiasm, but your ideas; your criticism; your vision for this world we share.

I'm tremendously grateful for this lecture series, because it's your insight and your inquiry that will make the Canadian Museum for Human Rights even stronger. And you know, and I don't want to date myself too much here, but it wasn't that many years ago that there was no real public discussion around these issues. It was perhaps happening in our universities, but not in a meaningful way outside these walls. 

Well, the discussion is now wide open. That door has been knocked down. The conversation has spilled out of the classroom and into the living room. Our job now is to knock down another door. With every door we knock down, with every wall we remove, we make more room. More room for different ideas, more room for different perspectives, more room for different people.

Our shared challenge, yours and mine, is to continue knocking down doors until we have a room where all are respected, where all have agency, and where all can feel welcome. I hope you will continue to be part of it.

La porte du débat sur les droits de la personne est maintenant grande ouverte. Travaillons ensemble pour en faire tomber un autre. Merci de m'avoir invité.

Thank you for your time.

1 Dan Lett, "Measured Museum Debate Welcome," Winnipeg Free Press, September 6, 2011, A5.