The Canadian Museum of Human Rights: The missing stories

Many stories involving the West — including Guantanamo, the Nakba and the Algerian war — should be represented at CMHR

Last week I was in Winnipeg, invited by the Winnipeg International Writers Festival (Thin Air) to speak about my latest novel: Hope Has Two Daughters.

As part of my others activities for the same festival, I was asked to speak at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. Last time I was in the city, the museum wasn’t open for the public yet, though I heard back then that some private tours were being scheduled for special guests. Obviously, I was not special enough to be one of them, so I decided that next time I would visit the museum and get to know more about its exhibitions and galleries.

In my talk, I spoke about the link between my work as a writer and as a human rights advocate. I spoke about what happened to my husband Maher Arar; the U.S. government’s extraordinary rendition program that he was victim of; the physical and psychological torture he endured while detained in the Palestinian Branch in Syria, his country of birth; the dangers of information sharing between intelligence agencies in a post 9/11 world where torture has became banal (or, to say the least, “justified”); and, of course, the role of Canadian institutions in this terrible ordeal.

As someone who trained to become a financial economics professor, I spoke about how writing came to me as a tool of activism, of justice-seeking, but (most of all) of understanding and analyzing the new global order we are living in, particularly the national security agenda pushed by the U.S. and many other countries.

I also insisted on the importance of storytelling as a powerful medium for many oppressed communities to share their struggles with other privileged groups.

In this context, as a Muslim woman who has to daily fight Islamophobia and is constantly confronted by national security policies, writing remains for me the best and only means to oppose stereotypes and these policies without necessarily victimizing myself, but rather, resisting them and liberating myself from cowardice and a sense of helplessness.

Following my talk, I tried to take a quick tour of the museum. I have to say that the great architecture of the place — shaped creatively like the wings of a dove — gives it a majestic feel that can counterbalance some of the heavy stories I was going to see exhibited.

In a short period, I couldn’t render justice to the entire seven floors of exhibits, artefacts, and interactive multi-media videos, thousands of documents, pictures and poignant and beautiful stories told through pictures and of pieces of arts. In my rush, I might have missed important things. Nevertheless, one of the most important issues I was eager to read about in this museum was the “war on terror.” I wanted to see how this ongoing war was handled and told. I consider my husband and my whole family as survivors of this war, that former American President Georges W. Bush qualified as “Our war on terror begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” 

I really wanted to know more about the “ghost planes” documented by the journalist Stephen Grey in his book with the same title. Exactly like my husband was transported from New Jersey to Amman, Jordan. Perhaps even thinking of seeing a picture of these planes. I wanted to see the name of some of the American private companies who operated them, such as Aero Contractors based in New Jersey, as well. I was also expecting to see images of the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in Manhattan where my husband was kept there and many others prisoners of the war on terror.  A place that the political writer Arun Kundani described as “the Guantanamo in New York you’re not allowed to know about.”

This is a place where Human Rights Watch described the treatment of the Muslim suspects detained there in the following words: “subjected to punitive conditions, held in solitary confinement, and subjected to security measures typically reserved for dangerous persons. Most were let out of their cells only one hour per day. Although material witnesses have a right to counsel, including court-appointed counsel if necessary, some in fact did not have access to counsel.” 

I was hoping to see pictures of Guantanamo inmates in orange jumpsuits surrounded by the barbed wires, not because they were a powerful reminder of the fragility of our human rights and that despite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by several countries after the atrocities of the Second World War, more abuses are being conducted today on other groups of people without any possibility of accountability or due process.

While I was circulated on the astonishing ramps made of alabaster and feeling being literally transported in the air from one floor to another and from one struggle to another, I thought of my own struggle, knocking on politicians doors, speaking to journalists, organizing vigils in the bitter Canadian cold with other human rights activists, and speaking to media to push Canadian politicians to bring my husband home. I thought of these longs hours I spent in front of the computer, after my young children went to bed, desperately trying to surf the Internet for names of journalists or human rights organizations to cover the story of my husband. I remembered those years between 2004 and 2006 when the public inquiry was taking place and the national and international media attention that followed us all the way to our doors. I thought of the thousands of pages written by Justice O’Connor and his legal counsel Paul Cavaluzzo to understand what really happened to Maher Arar, what led to his arrest by the U.S. and his subsequent torture in the Syrian dungeon.

Seeing some these documents exposed in one of the galleries of the museum or the remarkable recommendations by Justice O’Connor being showcased would have made my trip there a personal proud moment that to share with my family and friend, but also a terrific Canadian victory of justice over arbitrariness and discrimination.

But I was clearly dreaming. Nothing of the sort was exhibited or even mentioned. No images, no press clips, no information about the black hole prisons network that swallowed the victims of renditions keeping them hidden underneath and tortured, not a single mention about the horrific treatment of Guantanamo prisoners like the waterboarding. Nothing.

Among this shameful desert of lack of information, I finally saw a newspaper picture. One that I have never seen before, showing people holding signs “Justice to Maher Arar” with the following interesting description “Maher Arar supporters, around 2008. The Canadian government has apologized to Arar, a Canadian citizen, for not protecting him from torture in Syria”. Not a single word about Canada’s role or any other similar Canadian cases of Al Maati, Al Malki and Nurredin. The picture probably taken from an American paper, threw the responsibility ball to U.S. and Syrian camps.

No picture of Guantanamo, not a word about Omar Khadr, another victim of the war on terror, and the incredible work his Canadian lawyer Dennis Edney has been doing and all the work of Canadians activists, filmmakers and human rights groups who supported the cause until the end.

I simply can’t understand these missing stories. Is it a deliberate act of self-amnesia? Is it politically motivated? I don’t know.

But certainly, Canadians have all the right to know and understand these missing stories. Human rights are not only stories that we can choose depending on our likes or political affiliations or religious affinities. For example, today, it is politically safe to criticize and hit upon countries like Iran, or Russia and North Korea. They came to represent the “evil”, the “other”, that is the total opposite of what our liberal values incarnate like democracy, and freedom of association and of religion…

But how about some of our friend or allies countries, for instance the U.S. or Israel or France. Don’t they have big skeletons in their closets? Guantanamo, the Nakba, the Algerian war? Aren’t these shameful historic moments that our children and grandchildren should learn about in an honest and transparent way?

So far the Canadian Museum of Human Rights has missed some of these stories.

Photo: Milorad Dimic/Wikimedia Commons

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