Alexander McCall Smith: Remember, but don’t repeat, the crimes of history

Mahatma Gandhi, a champion of peaceful protest, leaves a Kolkata jail after interviewing political prisoners in 1938 (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)
Mahatma Gandhi, a champion of peaceful protest, leaves a Kolkata jail after interviewing political prisoners in 1938 (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)
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A visit to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg had a profound effect, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

It was one of those complete co-incidences that occur far more frequently than complete co-incidences should occur. I was in Winnipeg, at a time when the first indications of winter were in the air. Although there were still some leaves on the trees, reminders that the Fall was still with us for a few days yet, the air had a sharp bite to it.

Art in Northern Ireland, like this mural depicting a scene from Bloody Sunday, is often political (Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Art in Northern Ireland, like this mural depicting a scene from Bloody Sunday, is often political (Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

In Canada, that means that it was rather like the rush of cold that hits you when you open the freezer door. In Scotland we just don’t feel that, even if we are much further north than Winnipeg. Our girding seas us forfend such temperatures – for now, at least.

If the Gulf Stream changed its mind, as so many natural phenomena appear to be doing now, it will be a different matter. But we have enough to worry about at present without adding that particular concern to our list.

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The co-incidence struck me when I looked out of the window of my hotel room. I had been listening to a BBC podcast about the role of the artist in Northern Ireland. Artists in that part of Ireland face the issue of confronting in their work the traumatic history of the two main communities.

The Troubles may have been brought to an end – as almost everyone hopes – by the peace process and the apparent reconciliation that this brought, but the recent past remains painful. There will be few people in Ulster who do not know somebody who has suffered trauma as a direct result of the conflict that engulfed the province.

An innocent bystander, shot dead

I lived in Belfast at a time when the virtual civil war was at its height. I remember one of my students coming in to see me to explain why he had been missing from tutorials over the previous week.

His brother, he told me, an innocent bystander, had been killed by a gunman. What astonished me was that he professed no bitterness, no anger. That might have been a quirk of the grieving process, but it made a lasting impression. There was a sense of fatigue, even then, that this dreadful conflict with its attendant hatreds went on and on.

I listened to an artist on the podcast talking about his portraits of victims of the Troubles. This was followed by a discussion of the wisdom of revisiting traumatic events.

At what point, it was asked, should we draw a line and consign the traumas of the past to the past. Or does that lead us straight up the path of repetition, as George Santayana’s famous dictum warned? Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, he wrote.

Santayana was famous for his aphorisms, and that one is widely remembered and quoted. He also said, Only the dead have seen the end of war – a similarly thought-provoking observation.

Then I looked out of the window and noticed, off to one side and just visible from my room, a curiously shaped building, rather like a beehive, with metal tower sticking up out of the middle. It had been pointed out to me as the Museum for Human Rights – the only museum in the world devoted to that subject. I had been unable to visit it last time I was in Winnipeg, and now I was within walking distance of it. Listening to the podcast prompted me to go.

Welcomed by Gandhi

Canada is a very civilized country, and it is perhaps not surprising that it should be there that a museum of that nature should be set up. As you approach it along the path towards its front door, you are met with an instantly recognisable sculpture of Gandhi, striding out with his stick, clad in his simple dhoti. It is a quiet, dignified statue, not on a plinth, as statues often are, but placed firmly at our level. We meet him as we would meet anybody walking along beside us, and the effect is powerful.

Once inside the building, you are led up a series of glowing stone walkways to the exhibition areas. There, laid out before you are displays of photographs and artefacts relating to the many egregious abuses of human rights that have occurred in modern times.

The Holocaust is there, but this is not a Holocaust museum, and that event is only one, even if one of the most appalling, of the examples of human cruelty that have marred the 20th century.

There are many to choose from, of course, and the Museum has been even-handed in its selection. We do not associate Canada with human rights abuses, but there are dark corners of Canadian history, and they are placed there, right amongst the well-known and well-documented incidents of genocide and cultural destruction. The Canadian residential school systems, which took native North American children from their families, is poignantly illustrated, just as is the genocide of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania.

Some of these matters are still contested, as is the case with the Armenian genocide, but the Museum does not avoid these controversial cases, even if it does point out that there are those who contest the genocidal narrative.

I entered the Museum with a doubt in my mind. I think that there comes a point at which we need consciously and deliberately to forget wrongs, if only to allow forgiveness to do its work. Keeping old resentments alive, blowing on the coals of past crimes, may not be the best way of achieving reconciliation between people who were on opposite sides. That argument has some force to it, and it may be that in Ireland, for instance, rehearsing old wrongs is not the best way of ensuring peace.

And yet, when, an only-too-short hour later, I walked out of the Museum and back into the cold Manitoba air, the answer to that quandary of remembrance and forgetting was clear in my mind. We have to keep alive our knowledge of what wrongs we can do to others: that is not incompatible with making a fresh start.

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights does this with extraordinary tact and honesty. Winnipeg may be a long way away from most places, but it is worth the journey.