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Wanda Robson, second from left, sister of Viola Desmond, unveils the new $10 banknote – which features Desmond on the front and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on the back – with Finance Minister Bill Morneau, left, and Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz, during a news conference in Halifax in March.

Darren Calabrese

“I was speechless!” Gail Asper shouts above the din of a downtown restaurant.

“… at least for 10 seconds!”

The Winnipeg lawyer has long been the driving force behind the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which opened in 2014, and last fall welcomed its one-millionth visitor – well beyond projections for the ambitious project launched 17 years ago by Gail ’s father, media magnate Izzy Asper, and carried on by her after he died in 2003.

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It was not, however, the visitor count that rendered the hyperactive Gail briefly silent. It was being asked by John Young, chief executive of the museum, to sign a legal non-disclosure agreement before he could let her in on some news.

The Bank of Canada had decided to produce a new $10 bill. After years of Sir John A. Macdonald staring out from the national billfold, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz were about to announce in Halifax that the newest $10 banknote would feature civil-rights activist Viola Desmond, a portion of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an eagle feather to represent First Nations – and an illustration of the Winnipeg museum.

“I never imagined in my wildest dreams,” she says.

Well, in truth, she probably did. One of Izzy’s favourite sayings was: “Never do a little deal … a little deal can be just as much work and be as risky as a big one, but with no reward.” And it applies perfectly to this audacious dream that would never have become reality without Gail’s energy and determination. There were skeptics from the beginning, doubters throughout and even those who today remain unconvinced that a building dedicated to the exploration of human rights – at times ugly, at times inspirational – could be a necessity, let alone a major national attraction. “Getting this kind of validation so early on in our existence just demonstrates the respect people have for the museum,” Gail says. “We’ve only been open three years and this shows that the government has faith in us.”

Total cost for the museum, originally projected at $250-million, turned out to be $351-million. Three levels of government contributed approximately half, and Gail and her group raised more than $140-million in individual and corporate donations. When construction delays and an economic downturn sent costs soaring, the federal government advanced $35-million more in 2011, with the proviso that it was to be a loan.

The most recent federal budget included $35-million over six years to support museum operations, an unexpected gift that, in Gail’s words, “gives us financial freedom after years of worry.”

The good news of the budget was accompanied by the unexpected news of the new $10 bill. Ottawa had decided to put Desmond on the currency, and staff had come to the Winnipeg museum to research the story of the woman often called “Canada’s Rosa Parks.”

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A decade before Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a segregated Alabama bus, Desmond had gone to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, N.S., while she waited for a garage to fix her car. The 32-year-old businesswoman sat in the “whites only” section rather than the balcony, and when she refused to move was dragged out by police and jailed.

Desmond was convicted of defrauding the province of Nova Scotia of a one-penny tax, the difference between the two seats, even though she had offered to pay the difference if she could stay put. She was fined $20 and ordered to pay $6 in court costs. She appealed, but lost.

Desmond’s stubborn stand is one of the significant displays in the Antoine Predock-designed museum, a structure so striking that when the Bank of Canada researchers were in Winnipeg, it became apparent that the building itself had become a human-rights symbol worthy of appearing on a banknote.

“One of our research people said, ‘What about the museum?’ ” Gail says. “That’s all it took.”

The museum has proved more popular than the skeptics predicted. Annual projections of 250,000 visitors have been exceeded by tens of thousands, with 60 per cent of visitors coming from outside Winnipeg, and many from around the world. More than 80,000 students have taken part in the museum’s education programs.

On June 4, it will hold an opening gala for a new exhibition, Mandela: Struggle for Freedom, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of South African leader Nelson Mandela, which is coming to Winnipeg from the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

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Canada was chosen as the first foreign visit for the exhibition largely because of its strong support of a boycott of South Africa during the apartheid era. At the gala, former CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge will do an onstage interview with Brian Mulroney, who was prime minister during the years leading up to Mandela’s 1990 release from prison. (The Globe and Mail is the national media sponsor of the event.)

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights now stands on its own as a significant Winnipeg institution, its architecture so familiar to Canadians that it is now part of the common currency.

There are, of course, still detractors. A recent visit to website “reviews” of the attraction showed the lead comment considered it “a waste of taxpayers’ money. Just awful. So many other things that money could have been spent on.” Yet the reviews that follow counted 1,290 visitors who considered it “excellent,” 352 “very good” and only 40 “poor.”

The $10 bill confirms that the museum has become a symbol for Canada. And that is precisely what Izzy had always hoped.

“He always said, ‘When you see this museum, I want you to know you are in Canada,’” Gail says. “’You see the Eiffel Tower, you know you are in France. You see the Sydney Opera House, you know you’re in Australia. I want this to represent Canada.’

“He wanted this to happen and now it’s starting to happen.”

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom opens at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on June 8 (humanrights.ca).

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