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Construction continues at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press/Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press)
Construction continues at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press/Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press)

Human Rights

Memory becomes a minefield at Canada's Museum for Human Rights Add to ...

It all began with the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

In May, 2000, Gail Asper was standing in line at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., waiting to see the historic document. She was accompanied by a group of Grade 9 students. The money for the trip was provided by the Asper family charitable foundation, controlled by her late father, Izzy, then the chief executive officer of Canwest Global, Canada's largest media empire.

Mr. Asper thought that Jewish children in Winnipeg needed to learn more about the Holocaust. So he conscripted his daughter, a lawyer, to organize trips to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Then he thought the students also needed to know more about human rights, so they added a few more stops on to the Washington itinerary. Which is how Ms. Asper found herself standing in line to see the Declaration of Independence.

“The lineup to see the Declaration of Independence is like a Disneyland lineup,” she recalls, “and we're standing in this ridiculous lineup and I'm thinking, ‘Why are we doing this? What do these kids know about the Canadian Charter?' So I start talking to these Grade 9 students and they know nothing about the Charter, but they all know, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.' So I go back and I tell my dad that we need to make this a Canadian trip.”

The only problem was there was nowhere in Canada to take kids where they could learn about the Holocaust, or human rights, or even see the Charter on display.

Mr. Asper wasn't happy about that. He had been a lifelong crusader for human rights. On Oct. 14 1971, his first day as leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party, he had proposed a provincial bill of rights.

Thirty years later, he declared that he would build a museum that would tell the story of the Holocaust and the struggle for human rights in Canada and elsewhere, and oh yes, it would be in Winnipeg, because that was where the Aspers lived, and who said every museum in this country had to be in Ottawa?

What could possibly go wrong? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

“It's a can of worms,” declares historian J.L. Granatstein, the former head of the Canadian War Museum. “It's the triumph of hope over reality. It's simply not thinking through the difficulties of this sort of project.”

So you want to build a museum of human rights? You'll need lots of money, and you'll need to figure out what exactly you want to say in your museum, and how you're going to say it. Surprisingly, the money is the easy part.

“We could have done a big-box Wal-Mart for $14-million,” Gail Asper explains, “but beauty is important to show respect to citizens and to the subject matter.” She's sitting in the museum's temporary office space in a government of Canada building in downtown Winnipeg, a few blocks from where her $310-million “cathedral to freedom” is taking shape. There is nothing big-box about it. An international architectural competition yielded a bold design by American Antoine Predock. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is all swooping curves and odd angles and towers, shrouded in 750 square metres of glazed glass specially manufactured in Germany. The glass is supposed to represent two dove wings caressing the building. Located at the historic forks of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, it will inject some badly needed drama into Winnipeg's architectural scene.

With two years to go, there's no guarantee that $310-million will be enough to finish the job. Roughly half of the money will come from private donations. So far, the Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights have raised $125-million of the $150-million they need. The Asper Foundation kicked in $20-million. About 6,000 other donors have contributed the rest.

The remaining money will come from taxpayers; $100-million from the federal government, $40-million from the province and $20-million from the city of Winnipeg.

The Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin had pledged money to help build the museum, but weren't prepared to cover the costs of running it. Mr. Chrétien was uncomfortable with the idea of a federal agency being responsible for telling the story of human rights. There would be too much opportunity for stories to be whitewashed to suit the prevailing political winds of the day.

But without a government pledge to cover the operating costs, there would be no museum.

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