Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Museum's bold idea worthy

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Is it possible that Canada doesn't need a human rights museum, particularly one that will cost $351 million?

After all, Canada is already a land of ubiquitous rights for individuals and groups, not just minorities, but employees, tenants, patients -- all of us, actually. The country is also recognized around the world as a strong advocate for human rights, and Canadian jurists are consulted regularly on legal and human-rights issues. South Africa's Bill of Rights, for example, was modelled after Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The further the argument is carried, however, the clearer it becomes that Canadian history and identity are defined by pluralism, tolerance, and, above all, human rights, however imperfect their definition, application or acceptance.

If liberty defines Americans, human rights have become Canada's national myth. But unlike the United States, Canada has no Liberty Bell, no Statue of Liberty, which give human and architectural form to the predominant theme of American life.

And that's why the late Izzy Asper envisioned a bold building with iconic architecture, something worthy of Canada's heritage and the importance of human rights. Anything less wasn't worth doing. Indeed, when the budget for the museum soared to $315 from $265 in 2008, many private donors, including the Aspers, were prepared to withdraw their money rather than downsize and erect a red-brick warehouse for human rights.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is being built in Winnipeg because this is where the idea originated and where the deal was cobbled together. Moreover, Manitoba donors have contributed 80 per cent of the $120 million raised so far. Prime Minister Stephen Harper also liked the idea of building a national museum outside the Capital Region in a city and province that have fought many battles over human rights.

There was no agreement that the private fundraisers, known as the Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, would be responsible for cost overruns, but their only choice -- since Ottawa refused to increase its $100-million stake, which thus discouraged the province and city from also contributing more -- was to raise more private cash.

They were $20 million short of their goal of $150 million when the budget increased again, to $351 million. The building alone, which is nearing completion, cost $265 million. The Friends now need $60 million, an enormous burden that could delay the museum's opening for five or six years and thus create new budget problems, unless the government offers a loan or new money.

The controversies over budgets, government intransigence, and the place of the Holocaust, however, have distracted attention from the museum's truly national and international ambitions.

One of its central goals is to bring thousands of school children to the museum every year, but before they arrive here, they will have completed a program on human rights in their home schools. The museum has been negotiating agreements with the 13 provincial and territorial departments of education to prepare a human-rights curriculum in co-operation with the Winnipeg facility. Other partnerships are also being developed, including airlines that have agreed to offer special rates to fly students to Winnipeg.

This is a completely new concept in Canada and, hopefully, it will be an inspiration for Ottawa, which has no similar program for its great national institutions. Eventually, the museum could be a training ground for police officers, soldiers, foreign affairs workers and others. (Some of the museum's crudest critics should be given life-long passes).

The museum is also developing relationships with universities across Canada for programming and professional support. World-class intellectuals, writers and famous thinkers will grace the museum's corridors. In fact, it will more closely resemble an educational institution than a museum, which is usually associated with dusty artifacts and relics from the past.

This is an idea museum. It will challenge not only the bullies, racists and bigots in our midst, but also the apathetic, the bystanders, those who don't vote. It will encourage introspection and self-examination. Ultimately, its goal is to educate, create good citizens and promote action at home and abroad.

These are big ideas and lofty goals, and there will be more challenges and bitter controversies along the way, but that's the risk in pursuing greatness. And that's why Izzy Asper urged Canadians to reach for the stars -- as he put it -- in creating a great national institution that would be recognized around the world as Canada's Statue of Liberty.

That's what Prime Minister Harper understood when he decided to make it a Crown corporation. He liked the boldness of the concept and, as a leader who has strived to promote history at home and freedom abroad, he also recognized that human rights are as Canadian as maple syrup.

And that's why he should brush aside the petty controversies and take a stronger stand for what will become a great national monument for all Canadians.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 30, 2011 A12


Updated on Saturday, December 31, 2011 at 8:28 AM CST: Corrects total number of provinces and territories to 13

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