One of the biggest controversies for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has been around the acknowledgement and representation of genocides. In a Nov. 16, 2015, seminar, sociologist Dr. Andrew Woolford interrogated the genocide concept itself and looked at its origins, the law, and the forms of accusation it authorizes. He examined the historical development of the genocide concept and focused on use of the term “cultural genocide.” The opening paragraph of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s summary report uses “cultural genocide” to describe the history of settler-colonialism and its damaging effects on Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Some question the value of this term, which has no legal status. Critics ask: “Are advocates of the term ‘cultural genocide’ limiting ‘genocide’?” In response, it is argued that using “cultural genocide” avoids distracting debates around the legal understanding of “genocide” and how an atrocity fits the definition, especially when considering Canadian and international genocide law.

Woolford discussed the biography of Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” in 1923. For Lemkin, cultural protection of a group was just as important as physical protection. Cultural genocide was originally included in a 1947 draft of the genocide convention. However, debate during creation of UN convention resulted in the removal of that term. Canada played a significant role in limiting the definition of genocide. In the end, these discussions “transformed the grammar of accusation so that the impetus of the UN Genocide Convention to protect the lives of groups became about the protection of the lives of group members as individuals – and trying individuals, rather than states, social networks or social conditions that placed these lives in jeopardy,” Woolford said.

Helen Fallding, manager of the Centre for Human Rights Research (CMHR) and a former editor at the Winnipeg Free Press, looked at 275 news stories about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights during its construction. (See The Idea of a Human Rights Museum book for more details.) While many of the stories dealt with budgetary concerns, almost two-thirds of the articles about museum content were about the Holocaust and Holodomor exhibits and the surrounding controversy regarding the representation of these genocides. Fallding says museum coverage would have been more interesting had there been access to more information regarding the museum’s plans.

For human rights researchers, the main interest was in content. Finding out what the museum would contain was “almost impossible,” leading to the filing of access to information requests. There was a lack of clarity for both academics and the public regarding the museum’s proposed content and the decision-making process for exhibits. Access requests can take anywhere from a couple of months to years. In the case of the museum, some requests took up to two years. Fulfilled information requests had much of the most pertinent information blacked out, restricting the general public’s participation in the formation of museum content. The information was usually denied on the basis of clauses in Canada’s access law that give officials discretion to refuse access after weighing the benefits and consequences of disclosure.

Fallding evaluates the museum’s openness according to “the extent to which curators are free to talk to the public and engage with academics, and the extent to which they are giving real answers to real questions.” Since its opening, the museum appears to have somewhat relaxed the restrictions placed on staff. According to Fallding, media coverage after the museum’s opening is also more interesting nationally, although local media continue to be preoccupied with budget and attendance. She recommends that if there are stories members of the public would rather read, they should contact reporters and encourage them to investigate stories about the museum they may be curious about.


Another seminar speaker mentioned that the museum is not using the term genocide to describe the effect of settler-colonialism on Indigenous people because a state-funded institution is not positioned to do so. It was also argued that in order not to infringe on the agency of the affected communities, these communities should advocate for the appropriate terminology. What is your opinion on this?

Woolford: I don’t disagree. Canadians need to do the work themselves and grapple with the issue as it may, in a way, be “too easy” to just have the museum declare it so. There are multiple reasons for state institutions to not take this adjudicating role. However, the CMHR recognizes five overseas genocides, so not recognizing what happened in Canada may be considered a form of evasion.

How effective is debate in the popular media in moving issues such as genocide forward?

Fallding: I think it’s healthy that the genocide debate came out before the museum opened. It broadened the discussion and provoked responses from multiple parties affected by the issue, including the general public. It is likely that lay members of the public are more aware of the term genocide itself and the surrounding controversy due to the debates in the media on this issue.

Audio podcasts are also available for seminars in this series.