Monday, 5 October 2015

From Darkness to Light

It may seem odd to recover from jet lag 14 hours drive from home, but it made sense when I planned the North American leg of my grand pilgrimage. I needed to cross 2 provinces to get to my next sabbatical stop, so why not take it abit more slowly and stop with friends at Clearwater Lake just outside The Pas, and a couple more on an acreage just outside Winnipeg. Both visits were relaxing and renewing as I reconnected with good friends over good wine and even better food.

While I was in the Winnipeg area, I decided to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It's an interesting building to look at from the outside, rising to a viewing tower in the centre. It's even more interesting when experienced from within, the architecture of the building intended to help shape the visitor's experience.

This shaping begins even before you enter the building. As you approach the doors you descend slightly between two imposing slab walls. You begin to feel a sense of oppression which continues as you enter the dark, windowless ground floor. But you are about to begin a journey out of that darkness and into light. This journey is imaged architecturally in 2 ways. First, the ramps you walk up are sided by illuminated white marble. You can see these ramps crisscrossing above you, drawing you upward on your journey. Second, each ascending level of the museum is less dark. Ironically, at first this movement into greater light architecturally is matched with a darkening of the subject matter, especially the galleries about genocide. Again, this feels intentional. You can only come into the light of knowledge by facing the darkness of human injustice and violence. Slowly, you climb out of this, encountering galleries not just about the dark chapters of our history, but also what we have done and can do to make the world a more just and humane place. At the end of your journey you can climb the tower to look out on the Winnipeg cityscape beneath the wide open Manitoba sky.

One of the interesting dynamics of the museum is that for the most part galleries are not dedicated to a particular overarching rights issue, like sexism or racism towards the black community, but rather story based vignettes about these issues. Experienced in a more diffuse manner, you experience the broader narratives as part of this movement from dark chapters to more enlightened approaches. An example is the case of Jeannette Corbiere  Lavelle, who after losing her status when she married a non-Indigenous man, brought a Supreme Court challenge to the sexism of the Indian Act. This exhibit highlights both gender and Indigenous rights.

There is an exception to this approach in terms of the galleries focused on genocide. As you come off the ramp onto the level dedicated to this topic, you pass through a section exploring the history of the Shoah (Holocaust). You can't sidestep this section, nor should you. But because other "isms" are explored more diffusely in exhibits about segregation, or the Chinese head tax, or the evolving rights of persons with disabilities, it becomes clear that an opportunity is missed in terms of facing the more comprehensive realities of Canada's  treatment of women, or the Black community, and most especially Indigenous people.

If you had to pass through an exhibit about our historical treatment of Indigenous people, as part an overarching exploration of colonialism, I'd feel more at ease. But you can choose whether or not to view the gallery about Indian Residential Schools, or Metis issues, or the experience of Inuit. As you listen to personal stories, you can opt to hear about children's rights or LGBTQ issues, and ignore Indigenous concerns. But you can't sidestep the gallery about The Shoah. As important as it is that we face that dark chapter of our history, including Canada's anti-Semitic past, it's equally imperative for us to come face to face with our historical, and ongoing, racism in regard to Indigenous people.

Unless we come face to face with our ongoing Canadian shadow, we will never reach the future vision expressed in the Tower of Hope.

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up on an important and often overlooked institution! Sure, it's imperfect, but one without flaws could never have been built in the first place.