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PCL project manager Jon Kindrachuck leads a tour of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights construction site in Winnipeg on Monday. (John Woods for The Globe and Mail/John Woods for The Globe and Mail)
PCL project manager Jon Kindrachuck leads a tour of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights construction site in Winnipeg on Monday. (John Woods for The Globe and Mail/John Woods for The Globe and Mail)

Museum of Human Rights

At the Forks, Izzy Asper's improbable project takes shape Add to ...

There are moments when you stand in the middle and look up at the crisscrossing, seemingly haphazard steel beams and feel like you’re inside a giant beaver lodge – which is rather appropriate, given that those building the Canadian Museum of Human Rights are hopeful that it, too, will one day stand as a national icon.

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But there are times, too, when it feels like some giant child has run amok with a Meccano set, times when it looks like you are trapped inside a huge hydro dam, times, even, when some feel vertigo from the lack of square angles and level ceilings.

Architect Antoine Predock’s curious masterpiece will not be finished for at least another year, but already the striking construction site has emerged as a symbol for the new Winnipeg. At the start of the second decade of the 21st century, Winnipeg is a city reveling in the return of its National Hockey League team, the Jets, the beginning of a new university football stadium, the opening of a brand-new airport and – perhaps most indicative of all that this urban centre has arrived: a monstrous new IKEA store.

The $310-million museum project stands high over the Forks at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. It is far enough removed from the city centre it is hoped to revitalize that it appears like a monolith, something so unexpected that even in the infancy of its construction, passersby stop and stare up, jaws dropping at the unconventional design. You are supposed to see wings when it is done, and clouds. In winter, the snow is expected to cling to its sides as if the building has been coated with icing. Where there isn’t stone (or snow-covered stone), there is glass. At the top will be the Tower of Hope, at the end of the “journey” will be a Garden of Contemplation. (As part of the fundraising, naming rights are being sold for virtually every room and display, so that should be the “Stuart Clark Garden of Contemplation.”)

The museum is Izzy Asper’s great dream. The broadcast and publishing mogul never got to see even the ground-breaking ceremony, as he died not long after the government announced in 2003 that it was in and would commit the first $30-million. His wife, Babs, who took up the fundraising after his death, died this past summer and will not see it either.

The tiny hurricane that these days whips up private donations – expected to cover half of the final cost – is daughter Gail Asper, a Winnipeg lawyer who, almost unwittingly, was the inspiration for the improbable project.

The Asper family foundation had been taking grade nine students to Washington to learn about human rights, but it struck Gail, who led the trips, that they were learning U.S. history, not Canadian. She tried taking students to Ottawa, but museums there are sadly lacking in the field of human rights.

“We’ll build one right here,” her father said.

“Are you nuts?” she asked him.

Perhaps, but he went ahead anyway, persuading politicians to come on board and hitting up wealthy friends for early donations. Winnipeg, he said, was perfect – the centre of a country where children from all over Canada should be sent to learn their history and know why justice matters. The child of Russian Jews who fled persecution and found a haven in Canada, Mr. Asper wanted the museum to tell the stories of wrongs that have been righted and wrongs that still need to be righted.

It hasn’t been particularly easy – early political reluctance was followed by squabbling over what the museum might hold – but it is being built, relatively on schedule, and will at some point become as much a symbol of the city as the Jets logo.

“We want to be the human rights capital of the world,” says Gail Asper.

She also promises that it will be a place of hope and promise rather than one of sad memory: “You don’t want to see a place where people want to leap off the Tower of Hope in despair.”

And when visitors look up at the tower from outside, the hope is that they will see this, potentially, as Winnipeg’s Tower of Pisa, its Eiffel Tower, its Sydney Opera House.

“When you see a photograph of it,” predicts museum president and CEO Stuart Murray, “just like you know instantly when you’re seeing Paris or Sydney, you’re going to know it’s Winnipeg.”

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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