Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts


Media Studies


Dr. Sharon Sliwinski

Second Advisor

Dr. Sasha Torres


On April 20, 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced plans for a new national institution, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). This announcement was swiftly followed by amendments to the Museums Act, and a unanimous Parliamentary endorsement of the museum. It is from here that the questions of my thesis arise: What notion of “human rights” is being evoked and promoted by the CMHR? How does this national human rights museum both lean upon and support national identity? And, how does the museum’s version of human rights generate definitions of citizenship and responsibility? Much human rights activism is at odds with nationalist interests; a gap exists between Canada’s humanitarian identity and the reality of the state’s complicity in human rights abuses. Human rights, meanwhile, are a complex and contested set of ideas about responsibility, moral judgement, and justice. This thesis questions how the museum negotiates this complexity. The CMHR currently exists in the form of its promotions and planning documents, and material construction is underway in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My research grapples with the museum’s discursive construction of human rights using the theoretical insights of Roland Barthes, Hannah Arendt, and Walter Benjamin. Ultimately, I argue that at the heart of the CMHR is a mythologized concept of human rights that excessively demarcates interpersonal responsibility, while inadequately recognizing the ongoing political responsibility for much human suffering and for human rights. This thesis explains how the fallacies of human rights - that they are inherent, inalienable, and universal - nevertheless survive as cultural myths. Each of three chapters revolves around an element of the CMHR discourse: the theoretical ambiguity of human rights, plans for the museum’s pedagogical and architectural design, and the television advertisement for the museum’s fundraising campaign. The myths of human rights pertain not to particular rights, but to the allocation of responsibility, the role of judgement in how rights are to be ensured, and the infusion of these into nationalist discourse.



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