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Museum will face foreign pressures

By Ed Feuer, The Winnipeg Sun
January 4, 2008

Stay tuned for controversies over human rights and human wrongs.

Ottawa recently announced public consultations plus bringing in academics to help choose which human rights issues should be featured and how they should be presented in the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

The move shows it's occurred to someone in high places that museum content -- especially involving real-time issues -- could be a continuing source of headaches.

That is likely why the Liberals hesitated about providing operating-budget funding now expected to cost $22 million annually.

Once government money is involved, it makes the museum -- and Ottawa -- susceptible to pressures, both foreign and domestic.

All the various stakeholders will be sure to shout their positions from the rooftops. The potential and temptation for politically based decisions will be very high.

"The government is trying to get out ahead of the curve," said Arni Thorsteinson, chairman of the feds' museum advisory committee. He cited the rumpus over the Canadian War Museum display that enraged veterans because it questioned the morality of Allied bombing in Germany. That museum agreed to change the wording of the display.

The human rights museum will face many such controversies.

Just go down the list of abuses on the plates of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. And check the powerful perpetrators, many of which do business with Canada.

Say, for example, if the museum highlights China's persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and repression of Tibetans, Ottawa had better be ready for the angry call: "You are funding anti-China propaganda. Stop this hostile act or there will be consequences."

Don't bet too many yuans that Beijing will be satisfied with the "arm's-length" explanation.

And there will be the home-grown protests by groups who will accuse the museum of taking sides. Have the architects designed a big area for demonstrations outside the museum?

Since many well-meaning Canadians have invested a lot of hope in the museum, let's hope the federal government really can set up a credible, fair arm's-length operation -- and somehow resist the pressures. Otherwise, no one will be proud of the feeble result.

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