Will the Canadian Museum for Human Rights finally include a reference to the Palestinian Nakba?


The Winnipeg-based Canadian Museum for Human Rights (above) has been criticized by many groups for its heavy emphasis on the Holocaust and systematic avoidance of other human rights issues – notably those of indigenous Canadians and the Palestinian Nakba. Rights groups are carefully optimistic that there now seems to be some hope for a change in policy.

by guest columnist Candice Bodnaruk

Palestinian Canadians believe that with a new CEO (the first woman and person of colour) at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, there is a chance that their narrative of the Nakba will be finally included.

Rana Abdulla, a Palestinian Canadian activist, artist and Winnipeg business owner, has waited almost ten years to have her story told in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights [CMHR].  Before the museum was even built the museum’s leaders put out a request to Canadians for their human rights stories. Abdulla submitted her own history for inclusion in the CMHR. Yet Abdulla’s account, as the child of Palestinian refugees who was born in the diaspora in Kuwait, was rejected at the time.

But she didn’t give up. Beginning in 2011, Abdulla started writing letters, sent emails, made phone calls and requested meetings with CMHR officials.  At the time her requests went unanswered and the museum did not respond.

“As the opening comes closer, I become more and more concerned that the lessons of the Palestinian experience, nobody’s going to hear it,”  Abdulla said.

Rana Abdulla has been waging a ten year battle to get the Museum to recognize the Nakba

She said that both she and the PCC also offered to work with the museum on building a credible human rights museum that is truly inclusive and equitable in all aspects. At the time she offered the museum a wealth of materials she had on the issue, including a variety of books on the history of the Occupation and the Nakba. The museum was not interested at the time.

Abdulla argues the Palestinian human rights case must be present in the CMHR because it reflects the history of not only Palestine and Israel, but also the complicity of Canada and other UN member countries in allowing human rights violations.

The idea for the museum came from Winnipeg businessman Izzy Asper. In 1997 he had begun sponsoring trips to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. as part of the Asper Foundation Holocaust education program for Canadian school children. Asper, however, was frustrated that there was no place in Canada for students to learn about the Holocaust along with Canadian human rights stories and he set out to change that.

Today, Asper’s daughter Gail Asper currently sits on the CMHR Board of Directors and is also President of the Asper Foundation which originally spearheaded the creation of the museum. Asper also serves on the Executive of the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is currently building the World Jewish Museum in Tel Aviv. She travels to Israel many times a year.

Currently, Examining the Holocaust is the largest gallery within the CMHR, while the stories of Palestinians and the Nakba are noticeably absent. The Ukrainian Holdomor, Armenian Genocide, Rwandan Genocide and Srebrenica Genocide in Bosnia are also presented in a separate gallery called Breaking the Silence. The Holocaust is also included in that same gallery.

There are no galleries or displays dedicated to the Nakba.

Before the museum officially opened its doors in 2014, museum staff did say it might address Palestinian issues though an art project or include a story about someone who fights for Palestinian rights, but today the institution still refuses to use the term Nakba in any of its exhibits.

“Palestinian Canadians feel we have been shut out of the museum,” Abdulla said.

Although in 2019 the CMHR officially recognized that genocide was committed against Canada’s Indigenous peoples, this past June [2020], the museum was condemned for its anti-Indigenous racism. Former staff members also reported prevalent anti-Black racism, sexual harassment and reported that CMHR staff were asked to shield exhibits about LGBTQIA rights from school tour groups.

In August 2020 the CMHR issued a report entitled “Rebuilding the Foundation,” about what its immediate steps would be to address the inequities at the museum. There were 44 recommendations that came out of the report and they included making an apology to Black and Indigenous people that is action-based, creating a Black Canadian History tour at the museum, as well as specifying that tours about Indigenous content be delivered only by Indigenous people.

There was no mention of Palestine in the report.

Isha Khan, the CMHR’s new CEO [who is Pakistani-Canadian] said the intent of the CMHR is not to become a complete catalogue of human rights atrocities around the world.

Instead, Khan said the goal of the museum is to inspire all people by sharing diverse examples of stories that illuminate different human rights themes. She pointed out that the CMHR does in fact reference the Nakba, although not by name, in a time line in its introductory gallery.

“As we consult further with Palestinians and other communities I believe we will find that there are many opportunities for us to lift up the stories of many,” Khan said. Abdulla is hopeful about Khan’s appointment and has been meeting with her about including Palestinian content in the museum.

“Canadians deserve the opportunity to form a balanced view, rooted in a fundamental understanding of the human rights charter and philosophy. The Palestinian story is an opportunity to build such understanding,”  Abdulla said.

Candice Bodnaruk sits on the executive of Peace Alliance Winnipeg and writes regularly for the Peace Alliance website as well as the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs where a longer form of this article first appeared.

Watch a webinar organized by CJPME with Candice Bodnaruk and Rana Abdulla in which they describe the struggle to get the Nakba included in the museum. CJPME has also initiated a letter writing campaign aimed at encouraging the Museum. The letters go to the Director of the Museum with copies to the Minister of Canadian Heritage and to your own MP.

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Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

Want to learn more about us? Go to http://www.ottawaforumip.org.

7 comments

  1. It is not enough to mention the Nakba. The museum must tell the whole story. For example, it could contrast the wealthy Hebrew University (which would be protected by Israeli forces) with the far less wealthy nearby Al Quds University (which has been invaded by Israeli forces). Unlike the Holocaust, the Nakba continues.

  2. Thanks to all who are involved in the effort to make Palestinian indigenous voice heard in Canada. Great article.

  3. Thanks for this Peter. I had no idea the museum was biased..in more ways than just the Nakba. Shameful a Cdn HR museum does not address what was, and still is being, done to Cdn
    Indigenous. Needless to say I will be sharing this info with others and will never visit the museum unless it radically modifies it’s content.

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