Canadian Museum of Human Rights campaign: “We believe we can change world for the better”

Gail Asper has deputized Winnipeg Real Estate Board REALTORS to spread the word about the proposed $311-million Canadian Museum for Human Rights at The Forks and help make it a reality.

“I’m still campaigning on this museum ... and you folks have a reputation for action and commitment,” the director and  corporate secretary for CanWest Global said as guest speaker at the WREB’s annual general meeting held at the new Millennium Library last Friday.

“Often it’s the citizens who make the commitment and the government follows.”

Asper said she wants REALTORS to relay the message of the importance of funding a “national” museum outside of Ottawa to their individual MPs.

“We will do whatever we can to support this great cause,” promised WREB president Ruthe Penner.

Asper spent nearly an hour explaining the museum fund-raising campaign, the museum’s purpose and its architectural design.

“It’s a centre as much as museum,” she said. “An educational and training centre. We believe we can change the world for the better.”

So far, private donations have reached $60 million out of a goal of $160 million. The federal government has promised $100 million, but this total will be received only if private-sector funds hit $100 million. The province has kicked in $31 

million for the museum and the city of 

Winnipeg has promised $20 million.

“This can be built and built on budget,” she added.

Asper said the design of the building is what she describes as “like a wedding cake” with a tower.

“Dad (Israel Asper) insisted we want a tower. People like to link towers” with major buildings. In this case, the museum feature has the lofty  name of the Tower of Hope.

She further said that her father, who originally conceived of the museum, wanted Winnipeg to be home to a world-class facility and destination. “The museum must present a compelling reason for tourists to come here.

“We Canadians tend to reach for the middle not the stars,” she said her father told her before his death a couple of years ago. “We settle for the mediocre. A big box is not acceptable.”

To prove the power of a world-class design, Asper cited the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain.

“When you go to Spain, you have to go to Bilboa,” she said, explaining that the northern Spanish community had not been much of a tourist destination before the art museum opened a decade ago. Now, 800,000 people go to the Guggenheim each year and it generates $100 million in annual economic development for the city, previously known only to the world for Basque separatist violence.

During her presentation, Asper said construction of the museum alone would provide 3,600 person years of employment and $19 million in federal taxes collected.

Part of the museum’s business plan is for an endowment to bring all Canadian school children for a visit to the museum for three-days. Some of their time will also be spent visiting Winnipeg sites such as the grave of Metis leader Louis Riel, who is called the “Father of Manitoba;” or learning about Nellie McClung, who helped bring Manitoba women the vote in 1916, the first Canadian province to do so.

Each school child visiting Winnipeg will be expected to make a pledge to “do something for human rights in the future,” Asper added.

“We will nail down Canadian history and help kids learn the important role Canada has played in human rights. We’ll tell Canadian stories.”

The stories would include the residential school experience of Canadian aboriginals. “They’ll hear about the thoughts and prayers of the kids who were taken away from their parents,” she said. “It wasn’t the best way to integrate them into Canadian society.

“The idea is to create empathy so you can understand the other, but it’s not about victimhood or wallowing in  pain.”

Other exhibits in the museum will include the internment of Ukrainian-Canadians during the First World War and Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War; the $500-head tax collected from Chinese immigrants; and the Canadian contribution to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Canadian law professor John Peters Humphrey wrote the original declaration which was adopted by the UN on December 10, 1948. It begins: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world ...” 

In addition, there is a plan to enshrine the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a document that now resides in an archives drawer in Ottawa.