letter appeared in
and Mail, on Tuesday, April 16, 2002:
The call by
Canadian Jewish Congress president Keith Landy for the government to create
a Holocaust museum needs some qualification - not because the victims of
that genocide are not worthy of being remembered, but because we should
not forget the victims of other genocides (CJC Renews Holocaust Museum
Call - April 6).
The CJC is
lobbying Ottawa for an exclusive museum, dedicated to the commemoration
of the Holocaust only. Other ethnic groups have been suggesting an alternative
approach, more in keeping with the pluralistic makeup of our society. They
insist on a museum that would include all genocides.
For many years,
universities have offered comparative studies on genocide in which the
Holocaust is examined alongside other such crimes. Much excellent scholarship
has gone into producing a wealth of literature in the same spirit. Some
years ago, Montreal put up a special monument dedicated to all the known
If the museum
is to serve educational purposes, the public must become familiar with
all the various forms that this horrendous crime has assumed.
professor of history,
du Quebec a Montreal
REASONS WHY WE NEED
CANADIAN MUSEUM OF GENOCIDE
By: Roman Serbyn
I — The Concept of Genocide
The origin of the term "genocide" is usually traced to Raphael Lemkin's
*Axis Rule in Occupied Europe*, a study published in 1944 on the
systematic destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis. The concept
later gained currency at the United Nations, when the international
undertook the task of identifying and condemning mass atrocities.
Dec. 1946 the General Assembly passed a resolution declaring that
"genocide is a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups,
as homicide is the denial of the right of individual human beings".
document also recognized that in the past "many instances of such crimes
of genocide have occurred, when racial, religious, political and other
groups have been destroyed, entirely or in part."
The UN resolution is a good starting point for our discussion of the
idea of a Canadian Museum of Genocide. It should be noted that
very beginning the international body characterized the crime of
genocide as follows: 1) genocide is homicide writ large:
the killing of a group, as homicide is the killing of an individual;
2) the victims are identified by a common attribute (race, religion
other); 3) the targeted group is destroyed in whole or in part;
4) genocide is a recurrent phenomena, it was not unique to World War
The resolution quoted above also specified that "whether the crime is
committed on religious, racial political or any other grounds" genocide
is a crime punishable under international law. In this spirit,
Dec. 1948, the General Assembly approved a special "Convention on
Genocide" which defined genocide as an act "committed with intent to
destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious
group, as such". This definition, somewhat different from that
has often been criticized for its restrictive nature. It recognizes
only four types of identifiable groups (national, ethnic, racial and
religious), and burdens the prosecution with the obligation to prove
criminal "intent" — a most difficult task to achieve. Nevertheless,
Convention is pertinent to our discussion for it reiterates the
affirmation that "at all periods of history genocide has inflicted
losses on humanity." It also treats equally the crimes committed in
of war and in time of peace, and it stresses that "in order to liberate
mankind from such an odious scourge, international cooperation is
The track record on international cooperation for the identification of
genocide and punishment of its perpetrators has not been outstanding.
In some cases recognition came quickly and at least some of the main
villains were punished. The major Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg
trial were indicted on the charge of conducting deliberate and
systematic genocide. Some Turks were tried in 1919 and 1920 by
and German tribunals for the massacres of Armenians during the First
World War, even though the accusation of genocide did not yet exist.
The Armenian genocide became generally acknowledged only later,
especially after being recognized by the "Permanent People's Tribunal
the Genocide of the Armenians", held in Paris in April of 1984.
was ever punished for the mass starvation inflicted upon the Ukrainian
people, but the 1988 Report to the US Congress of the "Commission on
Ukraine Famine" found that "Joseph Stalin and those around him committed
genocide against Ukrainians in 1932-1933".
International cooperation in the fight against genocide can take two
II — A Genocide Monument Worthy of Emulation
forms: a) forceful means by national authorities and international
agencies to prevent genocidal acts, and, where prevention failed,
decisive punishment of the criminals; b) popular education,
particularly of the youth, on the horrors and the immorality of past
future genocides. It is this second measure for genocide prevention
the learning about past atrocities to prevent them from being repeated
in the future — that concerns us here, as we discuss the need of a
Canadian Museum of Genocide.
While the concept of genocide is recent, the crime itself has been
around for a long time and some scholars have traced it back to
pre-Biblical times. Our society, however, has focused its attention
the more recent tragedies such as the Armenian massacres, the Ukrainian
famine, the Jewish Shoah, the Cambodian killing fields, and others.
memory of these modern genocides is preserved, first of all, by the
communities that were affected by them. They organize commemorative
services, publish popular and scholarly studies, arrange public
conferences and educational programs, erect monuments and set up
specialized galleries and museums. Some scholars have turned
study of genocide on a comparative basis, the only method which can
us a truly penetrating insight into this terrible scourge. Comparative
studies of various cases of genocide can now be found in academic
publications, public conferences, educational programs and research
centres. This academic approach has not yet reached the public
large, however. Monuments, galleries and museums tend to
A notable exception within this tradition is the monument erected on
October 1998 by the City of Montreal. The monument, called "La
R?paration" (roughly translated as "A Redress" or "Amends"), was put
on the initiative of the Armenian community of Montreal, which also
raised most of the funds for the sculpture. The sculptor conceived
monument as two thick, solid slabs of white marble, standing on their
sides and facing each other, several inches apart. On the inner
one of the panels an inscription was engraved in French with the
following dedication: "to all the peoples, victims of genocide in the
XXth century". Eleven of the peoples are named specifically.
monument is worthy of notice for its originality: it is the first
that an ethnic community in North America has transcended its own
immediate concerns to reach out to all of humanity with such a noble
message. It is truly a noble gesture on the part of the City
Montreal, a most meaningful initiative of the Armenian community and
example worthy of emulation by the Canadian society.
III — Towards a Canadian Museum of Genocide
In order to promote a true understanding of the nature of genocide and
to ensure the realization that the crime can assume a variety of forms
and infect the most sophisticated as well as the most primitive of
societies, it behooves Canada to endow its citizens with a genocide
museum that will reflect the full complexity of the phenomenon.
can only be achieved with a general Canadian Museum of Genocide,
dedicated to all the known genocides and providing adequate
documentation at least on the atrocities committed in our century.
Anything less must be considered unsatisfactory and unworthy of our
1. To Commemorate the Victims of All Genocides
The twentieth century alone has witnessed several major genocides.
Between the massacre of Armenians during the Great War and the
extermination of Jews and Gypsies during the Second World War, there
the induced famine inflicted on the Ukrainians. The adoption
United Nations "Convention on Genocide" has not prevented genocidal
practices from recurring in Africa, Asia and even Europe. All
genocides had one thing in common: they inflicted mass destruction
innocent lives on various peoples, even though none of the target groups
were completely annihilated. All these crimes were equally
reprehensible and all the victims have equal claim on our memory.
It has been stated that to neglect the memory of the victims of the
2. To Teach the Genocides
Jewish Holocaust was to submit them to a new outrage. This, of
applies also to the victims of the other genocides. It would
proper for Canada to single out one genocide for study or one group
victims for public national remembrance, neglecting the others.
Canadian survivors of all genocides must be recognized. The very
of selection or setting up a "hierarchy" of genocides is objectionable
and the usage of such a policy by the Canadian Museum of Civilization
would be unworthy of its mission.
In order to have a complete understanding of what genocide is, it is
necessary to study the phenomenon in its various forms. There
prototype of genocide, and if the museum is to serve as an instrument
education for our youth, it is not enough to familiarize them with
one genocide. Individual communities may organize galleries and
to educate their own community and the public at large about a
particular tragedy. Such endeavour only deserves our praise.
however, another thing to build a national museum which provides only
partial information on one of the scourges of history.
It has often been argued that the Jewish Holocaust or Shoah was a unique
historical occurrence. It has also been pointed out that to the
that it was unique, its value as an educational tool is diminished.
course, the Holocaust teaches much about man's inhumanity to man, but
does not show the various forms this cruelty can take. What does
Holocaust teach us about the use of famine as a weapon? How often
we heard reporters referring to the Holocaust when describing government
induced starvation in various parts of Africa, but a natural analogy
the Ukrainian famine was not made. Yet it would have been so
comprehensible and illustrative. If only the journalists had
knowledgeable about genocide in general and not only about the
An illustration of the need for more serious knowledge on genocide is
provided by the recent controversy over the "Redress" monument in
Montreal. Columnist, Lysiane Gagnon who contributes regularly
Globe and Mail*, recently wrote a scathing attack in Canada's largest
French daily (*La Presse*, 15 Oct. 1998) on the City administration
erecting the genocide monument. Ms. Gagnon minces no words:
of eleven peoples on the monument is a "hodgepodge [which] puts on
same footing all sorts of tragedies of which most have nothing in common
with genocide". The columnist refers to the Armenian massacres
simply "ethnic cleansing"; there was no Cambodian genocide because
"abominable operation" performed on the Cambodian people was done by
"their own" Khmer Rouge; and as for Ukrainians, "they certainly
belong on the genocide list". Ms. Gagnon recognizes only two
genocide: the Jews and the Gypsies. She argues that the
the Montreal monument to "a thousand and one 'genocides', which they
not", "dilutes" the the Jewish tragedy and "trivializes" the only two
That a journalist of the stature of Ms. Gagnon should write such an
3. To Reflect the Concerns of All Canadians
illinformed and negative article, in a respectable newspaper, and that
four weeks later the newspaper has still to publish a single letter
protest (I have been told that many such letters were sent) or an
article to rectify her statements is a glaring example of the inadequate
education of our mass media on the question of genocide. What
be expected from the general public? If the Canadian Museum of
Civilization goes through with its plan to limit the projected
travelling exhibition and the eventual permanent museum to the Jewish
Holocaust, it will be guilty of contributing to this ignorance.
Canada has become a haven to refugees from many countries ravaged by
genocide. Armenians, Ukrainians, Jews, Cambodians, Tutsis and
have made Canada their homeland. Here they have found the necessary
conditions to lead peaceful and fulfilling lives and to constitute
themselves into viable ethno-cultural communities. In return
communities are all contributing to the cultural, political and economic
enrichment of our country. As Canadian citizens and tax payers,
of these groups rightfully expect to be able to identify with such
national projects like the setting up of a museum dedicated to an issue
of general concern. The Canadian Museum of Genocide is just such
During the Montreal commemorations of the 65th anniversary of the
Holodomor or the Ukrainian famine-genocide, a petition to the effect
that a Canadian Museum of Genocide be established was signed by over
people. Many of the petitioners were not of Ukrainian origin;
they all agreed that we need a museum in which all the known genocides
of our century be exposed.
Thanks to the relentless effort of the Jewish diaspora the Jewish
4. A Canadian Approach to a Canadian Museum
Holocaust is already well known to the Canadian public. It is
belief that to the extent to which Canadians become familiar with the
other genocides, they will suppport the idea of a general museum of
genocide. It is therefore of paramount importance that an alternative
concept to that of the Holocaust Museum be given consideration and
discussed publicly. It whould be a project to construct an
all-inclusive Canadian Museum of Genocide.
My discussion with Jewish and non Jewish colleagues alike concerning
"Redress" Monument and the attack on it by Ms. Gagnon, showed a general
approval for the monument and a unanimous rejection of the columnist's
assertions. In the communities which were touched by genocides,
Gagnon's article provoked resentment for they found her treatment of
the genocides outside the Jewish and Gypsy tragedies to be uninformed,
arrogant and generally offensive.
A museum which singles out for remembrence a single case of this scourge
of humanity runs the risks of provoking even greater resentment, first
from those citizens whose experience is ignored, and then from the
of the Canadian population for not being provided with the complete
information on genocide to which it is entitled. Thus, the exclusion
other genocides from a Canadian Museum is objectionable on both ethical
and political grounds: while it outrages the memory of countless
victims, it also creates divisive resentment within our society.
On the other hand, no one can object to a Canadian Museum of Genocide,
which commemorates with dignity all acts of mass extermination.
be a Canadian museum, reflecting the Canadian society, and promoting
Canadian way of facing significant issues of general importance.
Canadian Museum of Genocide would also be a first of its kind in the
world. There are many monuments and museums dedicated to various
paraticular genocides, but there is only one monument, the Montreal
"Redress" Monument, which honours the victims and the survivors of
genocides. Now there would be a museum with the same noble intent,
providing inspiration to other countries and serving as model for
similar institutions around the world. The challenge before the
Canadian public is not just to put up a Museum, but to build a museum
that will transcend narrow group interests and will encompass the
concerns of the whole Canadian society.
to other Genocide sites:
Links to Ukrainian Famine Sites