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Museum sod to be turned -- no matter how cold

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OTTAWA -- How can we have a ceremonial sod-turning when the Winnipeg sod is frozen as hard as cement?Mother Nature's cruel blast of winter is forcing staff from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to truck in unfrozen soil, and they are laying down a layer of sand to keep dignitaries from slipping on the icy ground.

But -40 C or not, they are still going ahead with the ceremonial groundbreaking on the long-awaited institution today.

"We're being creative," said museum spokeswoman Angela Cassie.

At 11:30 this morning Prime Minister Stephen Harper will grab a shovel -- and probably some long underwear -- under a tent erected on the site of the museum at The Forks.

Also in attendance will be Premier Gary Doer, federal heritage minister James Moore, museum board chair Arni Thorsteinson and Gail Asper, board member and the museum's fundraising guru.

Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz is leaving today for a holiday and will be represented by Deputy Mayor Justin Swandel. A spokesman for Katz said originally the groundbreaking was to have been held earlier in December and Katz had planned to attend, but a holiday with his family had already been scheduled to begin today.

Actual construction won't begin until February, said Cassie. But preparations on the site started several weeks ago, including removing some berms of soil before the ground froze.

She said additional work will continue over the next few weeks, but Winnipeggers should start to see the area being barricaded off and a structure going up some time in February.

The $265-million museum is being built with $100 million in federal funds, $40 million from the province, $20 million from Winnipeg and $105 million in private donations.

The capital campaign is now a little over $3 million away from its goal. The capital costs include the building itself, and the price of setting up exhibits and multimedia presentations.

The museum was the brainchild of Israel Asper, who went public with the idea shortly before his death in 2003.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the first new national museum in four decades and will be the first to be built outside the national capital region. In April 2007, Harper travelled to Winnipeg to announce his government had agreed to cover the annual operating costs and make the museum a federal institution. It's estimated it will cost the government about $22 million a year to run.

The museum was created as an entity a few months ago, and a chief operating officer and chief financial officer have now been hired. An eight-member board, headed by Thorsteinson, was appointed by the federal government in August.

Cassie said the board will be launching a search for a chief executive officer very soon.

While he is in Winnipeg, Harper will also attend a business round table at the Delta Hotel in the afternoon.

Harper has made the most visits to Winnipeg of any prime minister in recent memory. Since being elected in January 2006, Harper has been to the city at least half a dozen times, including just a few weeks ago for the Conservative Party convention.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2008 B1

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