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Turning an embassy into ‘Indigenous space’ is a classic government misjudgment

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

When Justin Trudeau visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin in February, he was said to be staggered by its lyricism, starkness and anguish.

The power of the Holocaust Memorial isn't about the art – 2,711 columns of different dimensions, a disorienting grey garden of tumbling tombstones. It is its size (4.7 acres) and its place (in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate). Germany would not create a small monument and hide it in a dark corner. It puts a people's shame in the window of their capital. The memorial is an exquisite act of contrition.

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Now Mr. Trudeau wants to make a statement of his own on aboriginal Canada in the heart of our capital. This may explain his sincere if misguided commitment to create an "Indigenous space" in the former embassy of the United States, facing the Parliament of Canada. In his announcement on Wednesday, the Prime Minister does not equate the murder of six million Jews with the unspeakable treatment of Indigenous Canadians. He calls the centre "a concrete marker" of their importance and an expression of reconciliation, "a turning point in the relationship." But this is one of those misjudgments governments make, with the best of intentions, to right a wrong. Instead, it creates one.

Read more: Trudeau renames Langevin Block building out of respect for Indigenous peoples

Opinion: Beyond appropriation of our culture, the most important fight is for our land

Some history: The embassy has been vacant since 1999. Jean Chrétien announced plans to establish a national portrait gallery there in 2001 – a place to show our past in pictures, as the British, Americans and Australians do. Stephen Harper cancelled it. In the way things happen in Ottawa, which struggles with an idea of itself, nothing has happened since. So the building sits empty at 100 Wellington Street, a highly symbolic piece of real estate.

This is the southern quadrant of Parliament, anchored to the east by the Langevin Block (which Mr. Trudeau also announced will be renamed, removing reference to Hector-Louis Langevin, who proposed the residential school system.) The government has missed a once-in-a-century opportunity to create something wondrous. It's not that the space is too good for Indigenous people; rather, it isn't good enough for them – and for all of us.

Douglas Cardinal, renowned architect of the Museum of Canadian History and the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, calls the proposal "outrageous … shoving some Indians into a cast-off of a building no one knows what to do with." He's joined by other Indigenous architects, who call the old embassy "colonial" and "a hand-me-down." The place to celebrate the contribution of the first peoples is nearby Victoria Island in the surging Ottawa River, which they consider spiritual grounds. Why not there?

Beyond the venue, the building itself is unsuitable. It was designed by an American architect and finished in limestone, mimicking Beaux Arts. John Ralston Saul, the provocative writer and philosopher, calls it "an imitation of an imitation," inconsistent in tone with the parliamentary precinct.

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If it is questionable artistically, symbolically it's awful. Do we want to offer Indigenous organizations an outpost of the American Empire, which deceived, displaced and murdered native Americans? Do we want Indigenous Canada to bury its heart on Wellington Street?

Let us recognize, as well, that this centre is not conceived in yesterday's Ottawa, which was deaf to the aboriginal story. It comes amid a spirited effort to reverse a history of sorrow. Last week, for example, the National Gallery of Canada opened its new galleries of Canadian and Indigenous art. Next week, the Museum of Canadian History will open its new Canadian History Hall. Its president, Mark O'Neill, says that "Indigenous history is incorporated into every part of the most comprehensive exhibition of the Canadian story ever presented." The National Arts Centre has announced its first artistic director of Indigenous theatre. The other day the Governor-General gave awards to 29 Canadians showing "outstanding Indigenous leadership."

No, all this does not put things right. But institutional Canada, in its earnest way, is starting to embrace the Indigenous reality. Indeed, the elevation of the relationship between the government and first peoples may become the proudest legacy of the Trudeau government. But this repurposed Indigenous space is a bad idea. On the 150th anniversary of Confederation, why not think more boldly? Mr. Saul suggests razing the old embassy. He proposes a larger, elegant building, flowing from a rigorous international design competition. It would echo the motif of Parliament, draw on its materials and produce something modern and arresting.

It might hold two museums of political and aboriginal history, and offices for parliamentarians. Or serve as a repository of our founding documents, like the Quebec Act and the BNA Act. This would be the right building in the right place at the right time for Canada. It would make, in itself, a dazzling moral statement about this country and the people we are.

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