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martin knelman

Something has gone missing at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

That's the Proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982. This document – which gets right to the heart of the museum's purpose – had been on loan from Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in Ottawa. But the loan was temporary, and the document was returned to the LAC vaults a few months ago.

"It was the whole issue of celebrating the Charter that got this museum started," says Gail Asper, president of the Asper Foundation, who spent more than a decade raising money and overcoming hurdles, relentlessly determined that the museum conceived by her father, the late Izzy Asper, would be built.

"It's a very important document," she says. "As part of planning exhibits, there was a gallery on the theme of protecting freedom where we expected to have it on display. That's why a special space was designed with the lighting and humidity such a precious document would need."

The CMHR is a museum with very few artifacts – but according to Asper, this one was essential.

"If we could have only one document, this would be the one," she says. "People like to see original documents. They have a certain gravitas." Now the gallery where the Charter was formerly displayed has a wall that interprets the Charter, along with illustrated texts explaining what it means. There are also booklets that visitors can take away.

In fact, there are two versions of this document – both signed by the Queen. The one at the CMHR was the "raindrop" one, so called because rain showers began while it was being signed, leaving a damp spot.

The other is called the "red stain" version (a.k.a. the protest version) because a young man went to the LAC office on July 22, 1983, and asked to see the document.

When he was admitted to the vaults to examine the document, he defaced it with red paint. That was his way of protesting against U.S. cruise missile tests in Canada.

The journey of creating this museum had begun because two decades ago the Asper Foundation was sending Canadian school kids to Washington to visit the Holocaust Museum and see the U.S. Declaration of Independence at the National Archives. That document, proudly displayed, declared that all people are equal and have their rights and freedoms.

"At a certain point," Gail Asper recalls, she and her father thought, "we told these kids about the Canadian Charter of Rights. And maybe we should start sending them to Ottawa instead of Washington."

But there was a big problem. The Canadian document wasn't in a museum anywhere. It was kept in a place – Ottawa storage vaults – that visitors were rarely allowed to enter.

The obvious answer: The time had come to celebrate Canada's human-rights story.

After all, if you could count on seeing the U.S. Declaration of Independence at a museum, why shouldn't Canada's equally precious document be on permanent public display?

These days, senior members of the CMHR staff are more restrained on this subject.

"We are very grateful to LAC for lending the document to us," according to John Young, CEO of the museum. But he adds that the CMHR is not a major collecting institution, and it has other ways to engage visitors.

"We had it for almost two years, longer than expected," says Angela Cassie, vice-president of public affairs and programs. "And it has been replaced with other objects."

Adds media relations manager Maureen Fitzhenry: "We knew it was delicate and needed rest periods. We also show other objects temporarily, and right now our display case is full."

To view the document, visitors had to press a button to activate 20 seconds of light for viewing with the help of smart-glass technology. Under the terms of the loan, they explain, when the button had been pressed a certain number of times, the document needed to be returned to the LAC to be refreshed.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau is planning an exhibition, set to open July 1, 2017, celebrating Canada's 150th birthday. At the moment, presenting the document itself is not part of the plan.

Gail Lord, the Toronto-based consultant who was a key figure in the creation and planning of the CMHR, has a great idea. The copy with the red stain, the so-called protest copy, could go to Winnipeg and stay there. The very fact that it has been deliberately defaced as a protest, she says, raises provocative, controversial and pertinent issues.

"The protest copy implies all the right questions for the CMHR," Lord says. "It should have its home in Winnipeg."

I have thought it over and have decided Lord is right. As co-president of Lord Cultural Resources, and one of the top museum consultants on the planet, she knows what she is talking about.

Indeed, in 2015, Lord and her company arranged a rare Canadian tour for one of the greatest documents in the world. Spectators got up close to a copy of the 1300 version of the Magna Carta, housed in jewel-like cases.

In 2007, Stephen Harper, then prime minister, agreed to make the CMHR a national museum, and share the cost of building and operating it. That was a huge victory for Asper. But it also meant that she had to step back and turn her baby over to new parents – the government of Canada. Construction began in 2009.

When I returned to the CMHR in November, more than two years after attending the opening in September, 2014, there had been many improvements. Sections that weren't ready for the opening had been finished and polished. But the key document was gone.

Opening week was memorable for many reasons – the soaring Antoine Predock architecture, the historic site at the Forks where two great rivers meet, and the way its content glittered with futuristic, interactive technology. However, visitors back then had to make allowances for rough patches here and there on their journey through its galleries.

Today, the CMHR gives visitors a much smoother ride, with finishing touches done. The museum has won awards not only in Canada but internationally, and attendance (about 700,000 so far) has exceeded expectations.

Meanwhile, Asper continues to help through an organization called Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and holds a seat on the museum board – but she works at arm's length from the museum staff.

Now the question is: Will one version or the other of that essential missing document – the 1982 Proclamation of the Charter – ever get back to the place where it once belonged?

In my view, that would be a consummation devoutly to be wished. It just needs a few key people to put it on their list of resolutions for 2017. That includes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose father was part of the original cast when the historic signing took place on a rainy day in Ottawa.