Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lloyd Axworthy and David Barnard have a memory problem

On Friday, two letters to the editor were published in the Winnipeg Free Press, authored by two distinguished presidents of the University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba. Also, it seems slightly co-ordinated, as if to validate their noble opinions of the Museum and it's virtues, that both President's letters arrive in print on the same day.

The comments were RE: Dan Lett's piece on the loan idea, and both presidents dutifully came out in support.

Dan's column aside, the letters offer no intellectual depth or argument for or against the CMHR. They are the total opposite, shining examples of the purveyance of the narrative used by CMHR proponents. The same sort of narrative that willingly casts aside all managerial mistakes, all budget shortfalls, all funding shortfalls, all tax gaffes. The kind of narrative that, if they weren't writing about support for the Museum, they'd be arguing for you to crack your wallet open. Again.

But these things are not what makes their letters offensive. Lloyd Axworthy might as well be applying for a job as chief CMHR Spin Doctor. Behold:

"Beyond the economic benefit to our city and province, it will act as a centrepiece in the promotion of Winnipeg as a place where human rights are valued."

And I've no idea where David Barnard got this little completely unsubstantiated factoid from:

"Already, people are equating Winnipeg with human rights education."

There must be a CMHR flavour of Kool-Aid I'm not aware of. Or maybe there are flavours for each of the 30 Articles. Maybe you get some of this if you sign up as a Friend of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as "new member" schwag. And if you mix them all, maybe you get a super-duper formula that leaves you with a euphoric sense of amnesia about your own country's human rights abuses.

Let us refresh these two Presidents' - recent - memories.

Most recently, the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian-born man who has been "convicted" (by a US Military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay) of terrorism. Khadr is allowed to transfer as a prisoner to Canada, where he could serve the remainder of his sentence. Canada, however, has refused to act on this, since Khadr's transfer eligibility last year. The Canadian Government even refused to act based on a 9-0 Supreme Court ruling that found the Government had violated Khadr's constitutionally-protected rights.

I'd hope the Presidents are well aware that the CMHR could fill all it's galleries for opening week with examples of human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay alone. That Canada, in not transferring Khadr, is by proxy aligning itself with the practices at GITMO. So, it is clear that the case of Khadr most definitely embodies the actions of a country as a place where human rights are valued.

And we're off from Afghanistan to Syria. Where Maher Arar, a Canadian-Sryian holding dual citizenship was whisked off to Syria by the US and tortured for a year. Again the Canadian government refused to intervene in the case. At least we gave the man $10.5 million dollars in repatriation, and an apology from Stephen Harper after the fact. Doesn't it show that Canada is a place where human rights are valued to allow this to go on without government intervention?

A quick search on Human Rights Watch shows several surprising things, like bill C-31, which proposes changes to the Immigration and Refugee act. Including "mandatory detention" for anyone who the government might think has anything to do with any sort of smuggling. Which of course leaves all sorts of opportunity for abuse. That bill passed, 159-132. Canada, a place where human rights are valued, is now okay with mandatory detention practices for refugees and immigrants, including minors.

To go local, James Turner recently reported that 2 in 5 police calls (ie 40%) relate to domestic abuse. Couple that with City Hall refusing to pony up a paltry $450 000 to Osborne House to take care of women and children who are victims of this abuse and you might get a sickening feeling in your stomach. Especially when that CMHR loan deal would cover the additional $40 million needed to finish the museum. This is again, another example of how we live in a place where human rights are valued.

Nearly half a billion dollars are being spent to build a museum with a operating cost of $22 million, championed by politicians, millionaires, and all three presidents of local post secondary campuses. And Winnipeg City Hall shut down a half million dollar request to keep a domestic abuse shelter running to take care of the victims of 40% of police calls? Yes indeed, a place where human rights are valued.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that this town of Winnipeg has a free speech problem. It is apparent that the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press does not actually believe in the idea of a Free Press. Editor Margo Goodhand suggested to the two Presidents' post-secondary cohort RRC President Stephanie Forsyth, that the only truly independent journalism and news program in Winnipeg be dealt with. Margo Goodhand got her wish. The program, which gained considerable popularity over 4 years of broadcasting, was silenced.

In a couple months, the prominent folk of this city, the rich CEOs, politicians, will have another go at the CEO Sleepout. A glossy PR stunt to raise money for homelessness that is so fake it would be funny, if it weren't about such a serious issue. Last year these people ignored Mark Horvath's visit to Winnipeg as if he was never here.

This year, the goal is $250 000 from 80 CEOs sleeping out at 201 Portage. Which, if you do the math, is a pitiful $3125 per CEO, an amount that for people making an easy six figures, should be no problem. People like Lloyd Axworthy might do well to consider that $40 million fundraising shortfall for the Musuem, and how long $40 million would eradicate homelessness from Winnipeg for. After all, this is a place where human rights are valued, not a place where the prominent do publicity stunts to make themselves appear as good corporate citizens, and turn around the next minute to sell us the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Again. Right?

I should note: this blog post does not go out just to Mr Axworthy and Mr Barnard. It goes out to everybody who has ever touted the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in this manner. Which would include anyone who has publicly spoken in favour of it, or attempted to wring a few more dollars out of the public sector for an ever-cost-increasing project.

Contrary to what people like to believe about Canada, we are not this amazing, platonic sense of Canadiana as we often feel we belong to. The reality of Canada is far more dark than our happy stereotype-enforcing Ron James-esque image leaves us to think of ourselves as. Canada has a great history of human rights abuses. The other thing that gets me about it, is that Canadians often feel as if these abuses are in the past, that we have moved on as a Nation, and that we are no longer the purveyors of evil.

This attitude is even emboldened in the Human Rights in Canada article on Wikipedia:

Most Canadians believe the country to be a strong proponent and positive model of human rights for the rest of the world.

Which is rather frightening. Not only in the cases I outlined above, but also on the fronts of: internet surveillance, letting American cops into RCMP detachments with authority, irresponsibly sharing information with the US, happily and readily joining the Libyan conflict without question, expansion of oil and mining operations that greatly undermine our pristine image and threaten our environmental well being.

The CMHR is a nice thing. But we can do more for human rights in Canada, other than unquestionably arguing how great we are. We could do more by examining our role in human rights abuses, by admitting we did them, by admitting they are ongoing, even in Winnipeg, mere blocks away from the Museum itself. By challenging draconian bills in the House, by demanding all Canadians overseas be protected, looked after, and offered legal counsel, by knowing our government will step in where abuse might be committed. By not playing along with the United States of America in their choice wars, torture regimes, and insidious demands to more access to Canadian information and soil.

Reality check, Mr Presidents. Don't applaud for what we have done in the past, or play to Canadians and Winnipegger's noble-superiority-complexes. Challenge that noble viewpoint we have of ourselves. Educate people on current abuses and issues. We are already equated with human rights education, aren't we?

If that is the case, then why don't Winnipeggers, and Canadians, know about these issues? Why are we kept in the dark? Why don't newspapers write about these things more prominently? Why do we think these sorts of things can't happen here? Why do we think abuses are things of the past?

Opening a Museum won't answer those questions. Letters to the Editor parading support for a mismanaged project won't answer those questions either. So maybe it's time to start answering them. And we don't need a Museum, or it's completion, to do it.

It starts with you guys. Our community leaders.

* * * *
Post Appendix: Human Rights Articles under question in this piece
* * * *

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. (domestic abuse)

Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. (human trafficking)

Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. (Omar Khadr, Maher Arar)

Article 8: Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law. (Omar Khadr)

Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. (Bill C-31)

Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. (cancelling of independent news programs)

Article 25: (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (homelessness)

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