Special to Indian Country Today
WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Julie White wishes she had her old job back.
“I completely fell in love with it,” said White, Métis/Anishinaabe, “because I really believed that what we were doing was important.”
White was recruited by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to work as an Aboriginal guide in 2015, one year after the museum opened. She was 25 years old, and in the next few years she learned more about herself, her people and her country than ever before.
She also learned about the lies behind the history and behind the museum itself — that the museum refused to acknowledge the genocide against Indigenous people in Canada even while decrying it elsewhere around the world, why human rights issues were sometimes hidden behind closed doors, why staffers like her experienced the same issues the museum claimed to be standing up against.
And she learned how a grassroots effort to draw attention to injustice can sometimes overturn the wrongs in society.
“We just needed people to know,” she told Indian Country Today. “We had to call them out specifically, because they're the human rights museum, right?”
The result has been a fresh start for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights nearly seven years after it opened its doors to controversy.
Indigenous societies working together
The museum opened in 2014 at The Forks, where the Assiniboine River flows from the west and meets the Red River, which runs north from the mouth of the Brois de Sioux River in Minnesota. It is practically the geographical center of North America and an historically important meeting place for many Indigenous nations for time immemorial.
The significance of The Forks became apparent soon after ground was broken for the museum. A minimal dig discovered a treasure trove of artifacts that provided further evidence of the intricate and interconnected Indigenous societies that existed — and, more significantly, co-existed — in North America.
At the center of Turtle Island, the evidence showed that Indigenous peoples lived in a world in which different languages, beliefs, customs and spirituality could trade and pray with one another.
A report on two digs in 2008 and 2012 by Quarteny Consultants showed the findings were unprecedented.
“At least five completely new and previously unseen types of ceramic pottery, which seem to represent a period of rapid cultural change that took place over 200 to 300 years, between 1100 and 1400 A.D,” the report stated.
“This suggests different groups from a wide geographic area met here to interact, trade, form alliances and marry — resulting in the evolution of a "homegrown" localized pottery type distinct from those of Saskatchewan or North Dakota. The pottery findings may also refute the theory that Anishinaabe (Ojibway) people did not move into The Forks until the fur‐trade era, and instead suggest they had been using the site for hundreds of years previously, along with many other groups.”
The largest collection of fire hearths found in Canada was uncovered, and evidence of farming undermined the nomadic stereotype of the Plains tribes.
“An intact ceremonial pipe adorned with a beaver effigy (the bowl being the nose), similar to those made by Aboriginal peoples far to the south, evidence that sophisticated long‐distance trade networks existed,” the report noted. “A high concentration of sacred materials such as ceremonial pipe fragments, possible sucking tubes and a significant presence of red ochre support theories that the site was a place of peaceful meeting, alliance‐building and celebration.“
The report released in 2013 promised that the project would continue on track to open the following year, despite concerns from archaeologists who wanted to continue digging.
Coming full circle
The museum was the dream of media mogul Israel “Izzy” Asper, who lived a life right out of Hollywood — a rags-to-riches yarn of a small-town boy who grew up to be one of the most powerful persons in Canada before he died in 2003.
Asper was born in 1932, the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, in the farming town of Minnedosa, the Dakota Sioux word for “running water” in the prairie province of Manitoba, which means spirit-strait, referring to the narrows that connected the two big lakes.
Manitoba is home to one of the largest Ukrainian populations in Canada and the National Ukrainian Festival is held in the town of Dauphin about 75 miles from Minnedosa. But few practiced the Jewish faith; most Ukrainians who settled in the area were Orthodox Catholics.
They were strangers among strangers in a strange land. Raised by musicians, Asper went to law school and in 1970 became the leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party.
He entered the broadcasting world after being ousted from political leadership, wielding greater power than mere votes. He then won a competition for a TV license in Canada by buying a TV station in Minneapolis. The equipment and, most importantly, the advertising contracts crossed over the border, and CKND-TV was on the air in Canada.
Asper built the one license into a media empire, and Global TV became one of Canada’s two independent national television networks along with CTV. The Canadian Broadcasting Company, or CBC, is a national network funded by the Canadian government.
In his final years, he focused on philanthropic work and making his dream for a Canadian human rights museum a reality. He launched the charitable organization that would provide the funding to build and maintain the museum in 2003, a few months before he died.
Ground was broken within the decade, coming full circle at a place known as Odanah by the Anishinaabe people, who lived and bartered and made peace and prayer at The Forks.
Reference to Odanah is made in the book, “Minnedosa – A Village History 1879-1948,” compiled by the Minnedosa Women’s Institute and published by the Province of Manitoba.
“This part of the valley was the site of a very fine Indian Camping Ground,” the book notes. In the summer they lived on the south side of the river in teepees, but withdrew during winter to the shelter of the north hills to live in huts they had built.
"Odanah, the name given to the passage through the hills one mile west of town, means a ‘gathering’ or ‘meeting’ and certainly on the flats just below the Odanah Pass, there had been a camping ground,” the book continues. “Mr. Murton McGinnis has in his possession a very fine collection of arrowheads gathered in the fields of his father's farm.”
But the museum got off to a rough start.
Controversy circulated before it opened, with accusations that the exhibits had been watered-down, including an apparent unwillingness to acknowledge the genocide committed against First Nations people. The museum used “genocide” to describe the Holocaust and atrocities in Rwanda, for example, but not for the deaths of Indigenous people in Canada.
Despite a strongly worded report from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission declaring the use of residential schools a “cultural genocide,” the museum did not adapt the language until 2018.
By then, allegations had surfaced of discrimination and sexual harassment within its ranks.
White knows that one of the reasons she was so actively recruited by the museum was because she could speak French.
“I was actually hired for a specific program that they were offering at the time,” she said. “And they were only hiring Indigenous women for this program. So I was kind of scouted out in a way. And the reason why I ended up getting the job was because I'm bilingual. So, that put me in an interesting place. I was the only one of us that also spoke French. Being a federal museum, every program has to be offered in both official languages.”
White said she enjoyed providing the details and history of Indigenous peoples and human rights. She also appreciated the historical, cultural and spiritual teachings she received from Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers. But soon the clash between what she was learning and what she was doing became a problem.
“I felt that, you know, there were times where I felt cornered, like I had to choose between doing what my boss was telling me to do and doing what the elders have instructed me to do,” she said from her home in Winnipeg. “Because the partnership between the museum and the elders you know, now looking back at it, I think it was performative. And I think that we got caught in the middle of that, trying to bring something spiritual into a federal museum. It's tough. They would have events with alcohol sometimes. And we would be there in our skirts holding medicine, and just like, ‘Oh, this doesn't feel right, you know.’”
It created a clash within her as she tried to balance what she knew to be right with the mission of the museum.
She recalled one exchange in particular.
“An important person, a potential donor or whatever … was just flat-out racist towards me, like, really pushing his racist ideas of Indigenous societies,” she said. “And the CEO at the time, John Young, was there with me. And at one point, I tried to, kind of correct him and say, ‘Well, no, actually,’ and I tried to bring up a point, and John just shot me this look…That's hard when you're asking people, especially Indigenous people or people of color, to straight-up just ignore the racism that's being fed to you because this is an important person.”
Her contract was terminated while she was on leave dealing with health issues, she said.
Other employees who were Indigenous, Black, gender/sexually diverse and otherwise marginalized had their own stories to tell. It was the murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police in 2020, that inspired action. A march organized in support of Black Lives Matter brought out unprecedented support and solidarity for the movement, and when the official museum Twitter page stepped into the moment to support its work, it was too much.
“There were three of us, in particular, that just, we snapped,” White said. “We were just outraged and it all just came out.”
A social media movement to call out the hypocrisy was launched using the hashtag #cmhrstoplying.
“We had to provide stories, we had to provide examples, we had to really just rip it all off,” she said. “I'm so glad we did it, because what was happening in that place is very, very common. Most federal institutions, most institutions, period, and you're going to experience a lot of the things that we experienced.”
Driven by the online campaign, an independent review was ordered, leading to a report released in August 2020 that condemned the museum.
“Racism within the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is pervasive and systemic,” the report, “Rebuilding the Foundation,” by the Laurelle Harris Law Corporation, concluded.
“Employment practices, policies, and actions of employees within the institution have contributed to maintaining racism as a system of inequality. Black, Indigenous and People of Colour have been adversely impacted physically, emotionally and financially by their experiences within the institution.”
Young, the chief executive, stepped down in June 2020, after the social media campaign had begun but before the report was issued.
Moving to 'a good place'
For much of 2021, the Canadian flag has flown at half-staff in front of all government buildings, including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, to acknowledge the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves outside the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
It was also acknowledgement of a truth the museum had long refused to see – that the Indigenous story defines the museum.
“Starting from the moment people walk in the door, we want to make sure that people understand the long history of Indigenous peoples on Treaty One Land on Turtle Island, and then specifically here at The Forks,” Rorie Mcleod, the museum’s communications advisor told Indian Country Today after giving a tour of the Indigenous Perspectives gallery.
“And then also making sure that visitors understand, you know, the history of genocide in this country that has taken place from first contact up until the present day, and the way in which government systems including Indian residential schools, were a core part of that genocide and efforts by Canada to eliminate indigenous peoples.”
A new exhibit is highlighted by a piece of art, “Witness Blanket,” by master carver Carey Newman, Coast Salish/British, of carved panels that create a wall in a semi-circle with a door in the middle to enter or escape. In the back corner, a video screen flashes images of Indian residential school artifacts and class photos.
The “Witness Blanket” has also found a home among the museum’s permanent exhibits.
In August 2020, Isha Khan was announced as the new chief executive. Khan had served as chief executive and senior counsel with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.
“It's been a priority under my leadership that we allow people to see themselves in the museum,” Khan told Indian Country Today. “So that's reflecting their voices and their perspectives in our work … and that means building relationships with others. And so I see that happening all the time, whether it's developing stronger relationships or developing new relationships. It's a journey; it's not going to happen overnight.”
The museum is now going “to a good place,” Khan said.
“Accepting that it wasn't going to be work that would happen as a project or as a new initiative, that it would be work that would require changing the way that we actually think and work has served us well, because it has allowed us to kind of pace ourselves and find success along the way,” Khan said.
Kimberley Levasseur Puhach, a citizen of the Sandy Bay Anishinaabe Nation, knows a fresh start is needed. On her second day on the job as the museum’s vice president for people, culture and growth, she was asked where she plans to start in an institution rife with racism and disrespect for Indigenous history and other marginalized voices.
“When that news broke, (I), along with the community, had feelings, strong feelings about what was presented, and what had happened,” she said. “And then fast-forward to today … and trying to imagine what I know is possible and improving the relationships, from the inside out.”
Carrying the spirit name Bezhik Binese Ikwe, or Lone Thunderbird Woman, she defines herself as someone who walks in two worlds. Lavasseur-Puhach grew up off the reserve in a ranching town of Morris, Manitoba, home of the Manitoba Stampede, the biggest rodeo in the province. She was a stranger in her own land and has spoken about the challenges she faced in both the White world and back on tribal lands. Her background in human resources and her Indigenous identity will guide her forward.
“I didn't visit the museum, to be perfectly honest, for the first couple of years of its opening,” she said. “I took exception, I really did. I need to be honest about that. But, you know, in our culture, when you're given gifts, and when I lay tobacco down, and I speak to my elders and knowledge keepers, and the advice to me is, ‘You can't be afraid of this. You have a calling to go in and do what you can do.’ So I feel an enormous responsibility.”
She also believes that her identity will help to raise all voices.
“Our ways of knowing, being and doing are very centered on individuals and community and listening and learning and asking rather than telling,” she said. “I honestly feel that what's good for Indigenous people is good for everyone.”
She confirms that the artifacts discovered on the site of the museum will be part of the story that will be told and how the museum will reconcile with the history of the country and the museum.
“It's going to play an important and critical role,” she said. “And on so many levels, I think about it as an opportunity to look and acknowledge the truth, to be able to preserve and protect artifacts, to be able to listen and learn from our stories, as told by us, narrated by us to be able to convene dialogue and conversations that likely have never happened in the way that I see possible happening.”
As for White, she did receive a call from the new CEO. And though she still doesn’t have a job, she accomplished a great task. Her decision to join with others in speaking out has pushed the Canadian Museum for Human Rights further toward its goals and the vision of Izzy Asper.
For more info
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, at 85 Israel Asper Way in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. COVID-19 precautions are in place. Admission is $18, according to the museum’s website.
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