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Searching for human rights at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), officially opening today September 19 with opening festivities continuing this weekend, is lauded as an architectural wonder that draws on ancient Indigenous culture for its design. However, all I see when I look at that building is a headstone, hypocrisy and a terrible waste of resources.

A headstone to many nations of Indigenous peoples whose rich and varied cultural heritages are now buried under megatons of concrete and steel. Now, A Tribe Called Red has pulled out of the opening weekend festivities over concerns around the way Indigenous issues are presented in the CMHR.

Described as the most important archeological site in Manitoba, the CMHR executives were offered an opportunity to preserve the rich heritages of people who populated this land long before European arrival. The CMHR was provided suggestions on how to incorporate the archeologically significant site in their plan. They refused.

In a December 2011 CBC article, the Museum's own archeologist, Sid Kroker, reported that the CHRM decision makers ignored heritage permits and recommendations for "heritage resource management practices." The archeologist noted that making future recommendations would be "…as futile as King Canute railing against the tide" before suddenly retiring.

The CMHR, run by wealthy children of settlers, decided local Indigenous people's heritage does not deserve the same respect as their own ancestors and history.

A decision rooted in cultural superiority, arrogance and privilege. 

The CMHR sits on land containing millions of artifacts of at least eight Indigenous occupations spanning a thousand years, and more. Heralded as the largest dig ever at the Forks site, only three per cent of the site was examined, hastily and on the cheap. Only three people were hired, opposed to the 15 recommended by their own archeologist.

Sacred items such as pipes, tools, animal parts were unearthed along with an 800 years old footprint …97 per cent of this now buried. The artifacts already uncovered left unmarked in bags.

Dr. Leigh Syms, a nationally respected archeologist with more than 40 years experience in Manitoba, had this to say about the excavations:

 "…it was a pathetically inadequate sample and it's certainly in no way representative of what's there. And there's great, great gaps in the knowledge that we will never have in terms of First Nations at the Forks."

 "…those eight occupations are a phenomenally new record on what we think are ancient Anishinabe on the Red River. And the overall site at the Forks, with its 6,000 years, has many different cultures that were represented there…now it all lies buried"

Modern analysis tools used on a painted stone found under the CHRM, revealed that along with fish oils, a number of plants were used to make paints, showing a sophisticated knowledge of plants.  

"…we have this whole new range, ideas and appreciation of plant use…you can't get it unless you have the physical evidence. And obviously if you only have three per cent you're not anywhere near close to getting a representative sample."

For me this pile of concrete, steel and glass represents an attempt to literally stamp out evidence of generations of Indigenous nationhood. Evidence supporting oral stories of self-governing nations living and trading together. Evidence of rich biological, political and agricultural knowledge systems in place before European arrival.

The CMHR was constructed with the same Eurocentric arrogance that stole peoples lands, food sources and eventually their children; Eurocentric arrogance that determines that their pet projects are more worthy of public funds than affordable housing and justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Construction costs of the CMHR total more than $350 million, with about half coming from taxpayers. I can't help but think of the hundreds of millions of public monies and public donations for this, juxtaposed against children in need of affordable housing, mental health services and nutritious food.

Taxpayers are also on the hook for the estimated $21.7 million annual operating fees while funding for affordable housing, women shelters, youth programs, counseling services, health and education are slashed. 

Recently, a child's body was found near the CMHR. Fifteen year old, Tina Fontaine, was assaulted and dumped downstream from the CMHR. There's a dark irony that Tina Fontaine's life was snuffed out just down the river from where her ancestor's existence is also being snuffed out.

Ancient artifacts are not limited to the land underneath the CMHR but also have high potential at "Parcel 4", which is soon to be developed. With "Parcel 4" there's still a chance to uncover ancient history and heritages and learn more about the land we live on. 

If only the wealthy cared about Indigenous peoples' lives and heritages for more than symbolism to sell their wares.

* requests for interviews with Angela Cassie from CMHR and the Manitoba Historic Resources Branch were not returned. 

Kimlee Wong, a mother of three, is a master's student at the University of Manitoba and holds a honours degree in biology. A member of Sagkeeng First Nation, she has worked in current affairs and investigative news for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and worked on social justice issues in southeast Asia and at the United Nations.

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