Skip to main content

It's always the little things that get you.

A visit to something called the Museum for Human Rights immediately conjures up dark visions of outrage affecting great masses – often entire nations. And, because we're Canada, usually far, far away.

Then you come to the forest of red dresses. …

So simple, so haunting – dozens of empty red dresses hanging in a quiet forest of mostly birch trees. The striking art installation is by Winnipeg's Jaime Black. She calls it The REDress Project – go ahead, figure out the triple entendre here – and her memorial to missing and murdered aboriginal women is a key part of an exhibit called From Sorrow to Strength.

It is but a short walk to a window in this mostly glass building and a view of the Red River down toward the Alexander Docks where, on Aug. 17, the lifeless body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled from the muddy waters.

The Museum for Human Rights stands, impressively, at The Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet, and the Assiniboine, of course, is where, less than three months after Tina Fontaine was found, 16-year-old Rinelle Harper was beaten, assaulted and left to die. And she would have, too, had not two construction workers found her, covered her cold and battered body, and called paramedics and police.

The red dresses are a stark reminder that there remains much work to do right here at home.

This museum deals with the most controversial of topics and, no surprise, has been the subject of much controversy since the federal government declared that it would be a national museum back in 2008.

The site is considered sacred grounds by First Nations who came here to the confluence of the two muddy rivers to trade long before Europeans came in search of furs. The spectacular, 100-metre, 23-storey creation by U.S. architect Antoine Predock, who couldn't believe he was being allowed to build such a landmark, has been compared favourably to a dove folding its arms in comfort – and unfavourably to a German military helmet. Its cost – $351-million, of which approximately one third will come from private donations – has raised eyebrows, as has the federal government's commitment of $21.7-million a year to maintain operations. How much control will Ottawa have, people wonder? How much influence might the federal government exert over sensitive issues? Perhaps none; perhaps some.

It's been called a white elephant as well as Canada's most dramatic manmade landmark. It failed to open on time and, when it did open on Sept. 19, only four of 11 galleries were ready. Less than a month later, chief executive Stuart Murray was let go when his contract was up and he has yet to be replaced.

Critics laughed at projections of 250,000 visitors a year – "Say, kids, what do you say we pull into Winnipeg during our cross-country family trip and take in some human misery?" – but, in fact, the museum has been averaging 1,000 visitors a day since it did open.

It was always a given that there would be disputes. First Nations have claimed there is not enough on aboriginal issues, although there are multiple references. Ukrainians complain that the Holocaust has been given much more prominence than the Holodomor famine genocide that saw four million starve to death.

It is, in many ways, a no-win situation.

"Our purpose is education," says Maureen Fitzhenry, manager of media relations for the museum. "We're not trying to glorify or vilify anyone. We're trying to educate by example and to inspire."

Museum staff is fully aware that people will be upset and there will be no solutions to some disputes. "We're not leading people by the nose to come to certain conclusions," Ms. Fitzhenry says. "Certainly, we have not got everything right. We want people to tell us where we got it wrong."

What they got right is the sense of awe visitors have as they journey from the bronze cast of the 800-year-old moccasin footprint archeologists found on the site to the spectacular view at the very top.

Visitors are "welcomed" in 27 languages, including a dozen indigenous. They will pass through a timeline of 100 pivotal moments in human rights, from Hammurabi's code through the Magna Carta through the 1763 Treaty of Paris that is so pivotal in the history of this country.

There is simply far too much to list everything from the manacles worn by slaves to the 1982 Constitution signed by the Queen and Pierre Trudeau – the raindrops that fell that day still visible on the paper.

Of course, there are dark moments, often very dark. And several of them Canadian. Despite this country's reputation for tolerance, there is the story of its refusal to allow the liner St. Louis to land in 1939, forcing the ship to return to Europe with 907 Jewish refugees, 254 of whom would die in concentration camps. And just to show one coast could be as unwelcoming as the other, there is the story of the Komagata Maru, which arrived on the West Coast in 1914 carrying 376 passengers, mostly Sikh, and only 24 were allowed to land, the rest being turned away.

And yet, the higher one climbs along the alabaster ramps, the more light appears and the more hopeful the stories.

There is the tale of Viola Desmond, who fought against racial discrimination by refusing to sit in the designated section of the New Glasgow theatre. There is a photo montage of happy same-sex couples celebrating their weddings. There is an exhibit on the Nova Scotia schoolchildren's pink shirt campaign against bullying. There is even the handwritten first draft of Canadian folk singer Buffy St. Marie's magnificent anti-war song, Universal Soldier.

In the Actions Count exhibit, sophisticated interactive games will allow schoolchildren – the target audience of the museum – to participate in the never-ending debates on human rights.

In the final exhibit, there is nothing but pencils and stacks of paper that have "I imagine …" printed at the top. Visitors are asked to finish the sentence.

Some are predictable: "I imagine … no persons, big or small, live in fear." "J'imagine paix entre tous le monde."

Some are frivolous: "I imagine … a day where there is WiFi everywhere … for FREE!"

And one throws in doubt the very existence of Canada. "I imagine … when there is no need to apologize anymore."

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe