For most of his seven-plus years in federal politics, Grit MP Sarkis Assadourian, an obscure backbencher, hasn't been known for stirring up racially tinged controversy.
Except, that is, when the subject turns to efforts by the Canadian Jewish Congress to get the federal government to fund a Holocaust museum.
It's here that the little-known MP from the wilds of Brampton Centre has managed, on the strength of a private member's bill, to reopen decades-old wounds between local Jewish, Arab and other communities.
Ever since a Senate committee concluded two years ago that the War Museum in Ottawa would probably not be the most appropriate place for a Holocaust exhibit, Assadourian has been pushing his own bill for an exhibit in the Canadian Museum of Civilization "to recognize crimes against humanity perpetrated during the 20th century."
Genocide museum Much to the dismay of Jewish groups, Assadourian's proposal does not include a special place for the Holocaust, something groups like B'nai Brith are pushing for. Then there are those who want to see a separate genocide museum altogether. It's all made for some testy debate.
Assadourian, who before this debate was better known for taking on the tobacco industry, is sketchy about what it was that prompted him to sponsor the bill in the first place.
"My position has been from day one that we can't have one museum for every minority," he says. "A museum, for me, is serious business. It's not a doughnut shop that you open on every street corner. It has to be inclusive, simply because it's funded by the taxpayers."
Assadourian's bill has upset efforts by the CJC, which is still waiting for the prime minister to deliver on assurances they said he made during a visit to Auschwitz two years ago -- and later denied -- that there would be federal funds for a Holocaust museum.
While not casting aspersions on Assadourian's motives, one CJC official says there is a feeling within the organization that some of those backing the MP's bill are doing so simply "to take a shot at the Jewish community."
B'nai Brith, the other Jewish community organization in this drama, has taken a slightly different stand.
It supports Assadourian's proposal in principle but argues that any exhibit should focus on education and have the Holocaust, this century's best-documented genocide, at its core.
Otherwise, says B'nai Brith's national director, Ruth Klein, "it's going to be a scramble, almost like a competition for minorities to have their particular historical pain recorded."
It may already have become that, judging by transcripts of some of the testimony heard on the subject by the Commons' heritage committee two weeks ago.
Assadourian's bill calls for a generic exhibit using the United Nations' definition of genocide.
The exhibit would include everything from the massacre of the Herero in southwest Africa in 1904 to the Turkish massacre of Armenians during the first world war, the atrocities in Cambodia, the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union in 1945, Rwanda and the extermination policies witnessed in the Balkans during the recent conflict in Kosovo -- to name a few.
The MP has managed to attract some substantial political support to his cause, including heritage minister Sheila Copps.
But last week, the heritage committee stopped short of giving the plan the formal go-ahead after two days of hearings. Instead, it recommended that the heritage ministry "consider entrusting one or more academic centres with the task of researching all genocides and crimes against humanity."
According to one source in the know, the minister's office is leaning toward setting up a research institute to defuse what is becoming a highly politicized issue.
Conspicuous support For what should rank as the mother of all motherhood issues, Assadourian's bill has attracted some conspicuous support, most of it courtesy of Canadians for a Genocide Museum (CGM), a coalition of some 33 organizations that wants to see the member's bill taken one step further and is pushing for a separate genocide museum.
The coalition's signatories include groups representing Armenians, Buddhists, Croats, Serbs, Turks, Greeks, Latvians, Lithuanians, Palestinians, Kurds and Ukrainians.
There's even a Tamil group considered a terrorist front by Canadian law enforcement.
Because of the historical conflict that exists between several of the groups in the coalition -- the Turks and Armenians or Croats and Serbs, for example -- observers have suggested it may be next to impossible for the group to articulate a clear vision. Aboriginal reps are noticeably absent from the coalition.
Then there are the coalition's co-founders, John Gregorovich, chair of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA), and James Kafieh, a bigwig with the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF).
Past run-ins Both groups have had their share of run-ins with the Jewish community over the years -- the UCCLA over efforts by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre to bring suspected Ukrainian war criminals to the attention of the justice department and the CAF over Palestinian self-determination in Israel, among other issues.
Kafieh says the group is simply looking "to promote equity and inclusiveness in education on genocide in Canada."
But it doesn't take long for Kafieh to start condemning what he calls "the five myths" of the Jewish Holocaust.
He takes particular issue with the position promoted by B'nai Brith that the Holocaust has special relevance to Canadians since it stands as an example of a western democracy sinking into evil.
"It's a canard," he says. "The Holocaust ended half a century ago, and by focusing so much on it we're not paying enough attention to the genocides going on today. They're retro-engineering history. Frankly, it's a distortion of human history."
Assadourian, who is distancing himself from the coalition -- although he's used their support to pump his cause in the House -- nevertheless shares the group's views when it comes to the model being proposed by B'nai Brith.
"You cannot treat any other group of Canadians as second-class," he says. "We are not going to start apartheid here in Canada."
Over at B'nai Brith's north Toronto offices, Ruth Klein says the Jewish community is not trying to place the Holocaust above other genocides.
Klein argues, however, that the Holocaust is unique because, among other things, it highlights all the classic steps of genocide, "from the initial prejudice that often goes unnoticed, along the slippery path that can lead to state-sponsored atrocity. For good or ill, it has become the yardstick against which other atrocities are measured."
American model The CJC's Nate Liepciger, himself a Holocaust survivor, says that contrary to public perception, the Holocaust museum the CJC envisions would include room for other genocides, much like the model that's been used at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
"You cannot teach the lessons of the Holocaust in isolation," he says.
As far as Assadourian is concerned, there was never a promise of federal funds for a Holocaust museum, as the CJC claims.
"I asked the prime minister myself," he says, adding that his plan "is an opportunity for us to show how we can build bridges among all Canadians."
The MP may be in for a long wait.
John English, chair of the board of trustees for the Canadian Museum of Civilization, says current funding constraints and the fact that the museum is committed to other projects make Assadourian's proposal undoable, at least for several more years.
"Speaking bluntly, we wouldn't want funds taken out of our budget," he says.