It was the impossible deal.
A $310-million project undertaken in an era of post-recession austerity. The first national museum built in more than 40 years, the first ever outside Ottawa. And in Winnipeg no less, a city and province of diminished reputation.
Complicating matters, the museum was the brainchild of a controversial and wealthy Jewish family whose media empire had a polarizing effect on the nation's politics.
And it gets worse. The negotiations to establish the museum would span three prime ministers from two different parties, each with their own agendas and perspectives.
Finally, the museum would attempt to encapsulate the issue of human rights -- a mandate that has sparked controversy, derision and resentment.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is not an improbable occurrence. When you stack up all the opposing forces, complex complications and collateral incumbrances, it was the epitome of the impossible dream. And yet, architect Antoine Predock's glass cloud has risen in defiance of conventional wisdom, regional politics, petty jealousies, rampant intolerance and locally rooted myopia.
That is not to say everything is going smoothly. The budget has ballooned to $350 million and Ottawa has steadfastly refused to provide more money. The opening date for the museum is in doubt.
The greatest irony of the CMHR is that the process that saw this project go from whimsical dream to reality may be among its greatest contributions. It has revealed an ugly underbelly of Canadian society, from the intolerance that exists between various religions and cultures, to the dark and sometimes destructive backroom forces that control so much of what happens in this country.
When the phone rang sometime after 11 p.m., Moe Levy had no illusions about who was on the other end.
Izzy Asper regularly called Levy, executive director of the Asper Foundation, at all times of the day and night. Such is the burden of working with a compulsive, creative, volatile man. A late-night call meant Asper had become fixated on a particular issue or project. In this case, it was both.
It was July 18, 2000 and earlier that day, Asper and Levy had a rambling conversation about the idea of building a new, state-of-the-art museum in Winnipeg that would explore the Holocaust, human rights and the nebulous issue of tolerance. The discussion was sparked by concerns about the cost and logistics of a program run by the Asper Foundation that sent Manitoba high school students to Washington to tour the National Holocaust Museum.
Levy's trips to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles had broadened the scope of the discussion from the Holocaust solely to a broader examination of human rights. This evolved into a discussion about building the perfect museum to study human rights, tolerance and the Holocaust. In Winnipeg.
According to Levy, Izzy was immediately possessed by the idea. Already thinking about winding down his business career, Izzy was looking for a new cause to pursue in retirement.
"He didn't want his foundation to be just another cheque writer. He wanted to do things that no one else wanted to do or could do, or had the guts to do," Levy said.
The brainstorming continued during a post-work drink at Izzy's mansion on Wellington Crescent. Levy eventually left for home; Izzy was just getting started. Later that evening, he got in his trademark black Mercedes-Benz convertible and drove through the core of the city looking for the right spot for his new museum. When he returned home later that night, he called Levy.
"He said he looked at the big parking lot across from the Manitoba Museum and also Waterfront Drive. He cased it all out. But the land that really caught his attention was at The Forks. He told me, 'I know (Forks-North Portage Partnership chair and former Winnipeg Mayor) Bill Norrie really well."
Asper wanted an option on the Forks land by the end of that week. "That was the pace we were working on. It was immediate," Levy said.
In the next few weeks, Levy moved about the city as Asper's unseen hand, meeting with political and business leaders. One of the first stops was to see then Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray, now a cabinet minister in the Ontario government. Murray said the timing was prescient, as he had been seeking such a project to help define his mayoral term. Murray said he immediately pledged his support to the project. As a symbolic down payment, Murray took a five-dollar bill out of his wallet, signed it and gave it to Izzy. "I realized this was the idea we had all been looking for."
The next meeting was with then-premier Gary Doer, now Canada's ambassador to the United States. Doer said he was enthralled by the project but given its magnitude and its need for federal money was concerned about how it would affect negotiations on other cost-shared infrastructure projects.
Doer said he also pledged support to the museum, but asked Izzy not to do anything that would prompt Ottawa to withdraw money from other cost-shared projects. "We had an agreement that he would not go behind my back or undermine me in any way. But you had to keep your eye on Izzy. He didn't get to be a billionaire by being slow."
Jean Chrétien may not have had any idea what Izzy Asper had in mind when he invited the prime minister to visit the Asper family home in Palm Beach, Fla., in January 2001.
The two men had known each other for decades, going back to Asper's tenure as leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party in the early 1970s when Chrétien sat in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's cabinet. They were not, however, what you would call good friends. In fact, there was a rift between the two men that went back to the 1984 Liberal leadership convention, when Izzy supported eventual winner John Turner. The rivalry between Turner and Chrétien was the stuff of legend, and in the wake of the convention, Izzy and Chrétien were estranged for some time. However, Gail Asper said the relationship improved after Chrétien made his remarkable comeback in 1993.
According to Gail Asper and Levy, Izzy told Chrétien Canada needed an institution that would not only recognize and examine the Holocaust, but the broader issue of human rights. Asper reminded Chrétien how, as justice minister in Trudeau's government, he was key in repatriating the Constitution and drafting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He noted, with some regret, the Charter was not on public display because no appropriate museum existed.
Chrétien was presented with a broad-concept document that outlined plans for a $100-million museum of tolerance in Winnipeg. Asper suggested it be a national museum built with a major contribution of private money, but supported on an ongoing basis by the federal government.
In an interview, Chrétien said he was particularly taken by the connection this project could have to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, Chrétien said he cautioned Izzy about trying to designate the museum as a national institution. He said it would be much easier to make it a private institution with significant support from the city, province and especially the private sector.
"I told him that if he could raise the money, we would match it," Chrétien said.
"I said that if you don't raise money from the private sector, this will be a very difficult project. If you can raise some money, you will make my life much easier."
Chrétien agreed to provide a $700,000 grant to conduct a feasibility study. The Asper Foundation would also contribute $100,000.
Why would Chrétien dampen interest in having the CMHR designated as a national museum? Chrétien would not go into details, but many of those who have heard him muse about the Asper project believe the former prime minister was concerned a museum with such a controversial mandate would be manipulated beyond recognition by federal government meddling. If this were so, Chrétien had a powerful example to draw upon.
The board of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation announced plans in 1996 for a Holocaust gallery in a new War Museum. After two years of howls from veterans, the CMCC pulled the plug on the project. The whole experience left many with the feeling that Ottawa should stay well away from any Holocaust museum or memorial.
In addition, it was a very bad time to be lobbying for a new national museum.
"There were some very powerful arguments against this project," said Patrick O'Reilly, the former chief operating officer for the CMHR who headed up Canada's national museum portfolio for Heritage Canada before taking the CMHR position in Winnipeg. "First and foremost, almost no one thought there was a need for a new national museum. There were a lot of major capital and financial problems with the existing museums."
The federal government built the $340-million Canadian Museum of Civilization (opened in 1989) and the new National Gallery of Canada (1988). However, the very first national museum, the Museum of Nature, which opened in 1912, had significant structural problems while the last national museum established by Ottawa, the Science and Technology Museum, established in 1967, was languishing in a converted bakery and in desperate need of a new location.
The Heritage Minister at the time, Sheila Copps, said that in the wake of the War Museum conflict, a lobby of Jewish Canadians led by then defence minister and Toronto MP Art Eggleton was pushing for a national Holocaust museum and memorial in Ottawa. This made the arrival of the Asper museum proposal all the more awkward.
"It was an unfortunate convergence of issues," said Copps. "There were many Jewish Canadians who wanted a Holocaust museum, but they wanted it in Ottawa. So when there was a proposal for a museum in Winnipeg with a Holocaust component, it was divisive. Even in the Jewish community, there was quite a bit of concern about having this in Winnipeg. There was a fair bit of political tension between forces in Winnipeg and Toronto."
Despite all these concerns, Izzy proceeded with his full-court press on the prime minister's office. In November 2001, Asper delivered a feasibility study for a $200-million private museum in keeping with Chrétien's urging. In Izzy's world, it was a perfectly conceived, perfectly timed project. Unfortunately, although he had been a politician and understood retail politics, he could not see the other issues that were going to slow down his dream -- such as that bloody ditch.
Manitoba began petitioning Ottawa for flood-proofing support right after Winnipeg was nearly lost to the Flood of the Century in 1997. In 2000, after years of studying various options, Manitoba announced it was pursuing an expansion of the existing floodway. However, the $700 million price tag was so high, the province was concerned this one project would eclipse other infrastructure projects for years.
Doer warned Asper the floodway and the museum would have to compete for money. Izzy responded by coming up with his own nickname for the new and expanded floodway.
"He would always call it 'the son of a ditch,' " Doer said. "There was no way to separate these two projects when we talked to Ottawa. And I knew that eventually, I was going to get the 'either-or' proposal from Chrétien."
Doer did not have to wait long. In February 2001, just a month after Izzy first pitched his museum to the prime minister, Doer travelled with Chrétien to China on the Team Canada trade mission. These trips were prime opportunities for first ministers to conduct face-to-face business. On the 14-hour return flight from China, Chrétien pulled Doer aside for an impromptu negotiation.
"Chrétien said to me, 'Choose one, because you can't have both the museum and the floodway,' " Doer said. "It was my impression that he clearly wanted to do the museum. The floodway was just a big ditch. In terms of raw political sexiness, the museum was much better. He said, 'This guy Izzy, he really wants a museum. Let's do the museum for Izzy. We can do the museum now and leave the floodway until later.'"
Chrétien said he often demanded the premiers make difficult choices because he was constantly fielding requests for more money and not every request could be granted.
"When you're in the central government, you have to balance your investments or you get into regional problems," Chrétien said.
Doer said he thought the only way to get what he wanted was to pick the project Chrétien did not want to do. "I told him I wanted both, but that if we needed to do one first, he had to do the floodway. I told Chrétien that we'd both get crucified if we don't do the floodway first. I said, 'What are we going to do if we build the museum and then it ends up six feet under water?'"
Doer said the trip ended without a resolution.
Izzy Asper's original plan was to have a shovel in the ground by the October 2002, but it was clear the task of tapping into federal funding was proving more difficult than envisioned. In the fall of 2002, Alex Himelfarb, clerk of the privy council and one of Chrétien's closest confidants, called Levy and confirmed Ottawa would provide $30 million as a down payment on future support. Himelfarb told Levy the funding would have to flow in smaller chunks, in order to avoid recrimination from other provinces that might object to the museum funding if it flowed all at once.
However, even with Chrétien's pledge of support and $30 million cash in hand, Izzy was frustrated by the glacial pace of negotiations and reluctant to tell anyone about the project. The Free Press reported the scant details of an Asper-led Holocaust museum being planned for Winnipeg, but the reality of the CMHR was still a secret.
"Dad was absolutely adamant he was not going to announce $30 million," Gail Asper said. "It was not the $100 million we asked for, and at that point we didn't really know if we were going to get that."
As 2003 rolled around, Izzy's frustration with the project grew more pointed. In early 2003, Doer said he met with Izzy to discuss progress on the project. Asper was extremely angry, Doer said, and asked for the premier's help in breaking the log jam.
"Izzy reached into his briefcase and pulled out a draft memo of understanding that committed us to the $20 million," Doer said. "And then he asked me to sign it. He said, 'Look, I'm not going to use this against you, I just need something to help me negotiate with the feds.' "
Needless to say, Doer declined.
Levy said everyone was concerned there was no formal documentation confirming Chrétien's pledge of $100 million. If there were any delay, Levy feared the federal support would just fade away. "I told Izzy that even though it's only $30 million, it's a start. We needed to show people, the donors, we were making progress."
Reluctantly, Asper agreed to a public announcement on April 17, 2003 at The Forks Market. Copps attended to confirm the federal contribution before 400 hand-picked dignitaries. She told the crowd the project would become "a museum of national stature. It would be a permanent moral touchstone for the country." When Izzy took the podium, he was greeted by a standing ovation.
Doer said it was a triumphant moment, with some dark undertones.
"There were a couple of problems with that announcement, but number one was that Sheila was there, and she was not Chrétien," Doer said. "We timed this announcement to coincide with the anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Our goal always was to get Chrétien there, and his absence was troubling." Doer was also concerned Copps, despite being a fan of the museum, was not optimistic about getting the rest of the money. "She told us, 'You've got a lot of enemies on this one.' "
The plan was simple: Ask 10 wealthy Canadians to donate $6 million each to the museum. That's $60 million, which was the private portion of the estimated cost of the $200-million museum.
CanWest Global Communications, the Asper-led company, was already in for $6 million and the Asper Foundation would do another $6 million. So, all he needed was another eight investors. Izzy was utterly convinced all he had to do was ask and it would happen.
In the summer of 2003, fueled by April's announcement, Izzy and Gail hit the road to meet the prospective donors. They included Randy Moffat, Paul Loewen, David Graves, Gerry Schwartz, the Winnipeg Foundation, John and Bonnie Buhler, the Richardson family, Gerry Gray, Marty Weinberg, the Tallman family, Art DeFehr, along with corporate players such as MTS and Manitoba Hydro.
Having just finished heading up a successful campaign for the United Way, Gail said she had some reservations about Izzy's plan. Gail knew on average it takes 17 phone calls or meetings to secure a six-figure donation; a seven-figure sum may take years to materialize. Izzy did not seem to have the patience for that timetable.
The first stop on the fundraising tour was the home of David Graves, a wealthy and reclusive Winnipeg entrepreneur who is currently CEO of Imris, a made-in-Manitoba company that produces a unique portable MRI. Izzy wasn't in the door for more than a few minutes, however, before he demonstrated both his lack of patience and his lack of knowledge about the rules of fundraising.
"(Graves) was just about to leave for this big trip sailing around the world. And all I can remember about the visit was Dad breaking every fundraising rule I knew of. Of course, he wanted to smoke in David's beautiful home and David said to him, 'Uh, we don't have any ashtrays.' Dad took a piece of tinfoil out of the cigarette package and said, 'It's OK, I'll just make my own.' I told him he couldn't smoke inside David's home, so we went out on the patio in the back and had our meeting."
No one refused to meet with Izzy, but then again, nobody gave him money.
"Dad really believed that these people were going to listen to his pitch and give him $6 million," Gail said. "And when they didn't, it really upset him. I don't think he had any clue."
However, a sputtering private fundraising campaign was not the only problem facing the project. Chrétien, the man on whose word the museum would be funded, was on his way out. In early 2003, with rival Paul Martin nipping at his heels, Chrétien agreed to resign by the end of the year.
Would Martin support the museum? As finance minister, Martin would be patently aware of all the funding promises Chrétien made, both formal and informal. However, relations between the two politicians had soured so much, there were fears Martin would ignore Chrétien's pledges of support. Desperate to get a final deal, Gail said she and Levy continued to pressure Copps to secure the additional $70 million and a plan to cover operating expenses.
Izzy would not give up on Chrétien, even as he approached his departure date. Izzy made a last-ditch effort to confirm the $100-million on Friday, Oct. 3, 2003 when Chrétien attended a Liberal fundraiser and farewell dinner at Winnipeg's Fairmont Hotel. At that dinner, Izzy and Chrétien had a short, private meeting to discuss the future of the museum.
Asper said following that meeting Chrétien had agreed to announce another $40 million capital contribution right away, with yet another $30 million before the end of the year. "Right after Izzy and Chrétien met, he asked me to meet him in the lobby of the Fairmont," said Levy. "He said, 'Moe, we got a deal. They're going to give us an additional $70 million. It's in the bag as long as we can prove we can raise our money.'
"And then he said to me, 'Moe, you and Gail have to make sure you get this done.' "
Buoyed by the meeting with Chrétien, Izzy was on an incredible high and looking forward to the following Tuesday when he and Levy were to fly to Vancouver to launch the international competition to pick an architect.
Fate, unfortunately, had other plans.
That morning, Levy sat patiently in the CanWest corporate jet idling outside a private hanger at the Winnipeg airport. "Izzy was late and in my experience, Izzy was never late. Never late." About 20 minutes after Asper was supposed to have arrived, Levy said he was approached by the plane's captain, who had received a message from the family asking Levy to return to his office at the Asper Foundation. "I got the call about an hour after that."
That morning, Izzy Asper collapsed and died in the bedroom of his new, two-storey condominium at One Wellington Crescent. In the death room at St. Boniface General Hospital, Gail, Leonard and David Asper turned their attention to the fate of the museum, which had become Izzy's all-consuming cause.
"It was right there in the death room, with Dad's body lying there, that we all said we were going to get this thing done," Gail said. "That the real harm would be in not trying."
Izzy Asper's death, combined with Chrétien's departure, had a dire and immediate impact on the museum project. "It was a perfect storm," said Levy. "It was such a one-two punch."
Chrétien had identified a handful of projects that would form a legacy to his remarkable decade as prime minister. These included a new national portrait gallery and a $90-million Canada History Centre, a new museum of political history in the former railway station across from the Chateau Laurier hotel that for years served as a conference centre.
However, after assuming power in December 2003, Martin wasted little time in derailing the former prime minister's legacy projects.
In the March 2004 budget, Martin cancelled the Canada History Centre and the portrait gallery as part of a $3-billion cost-cutting exercise. Concerned the CMHR was next, Gail and Levy continued to keep the lines of communication open with Martin's staff. Unfortunately, it appeared no one in Martin's inner circle knew about Chrétien's $100-million pledge, made just a few days before Izzy died.
Not knowing what to do, the Aspers turned to Reg Alcock, then MP for Winnipeg South. A key Martin leadership organizer, Alcock was rewarded with the Treasury Board portfolio and the regional minister's mantle.
Alcock, who died suddenly this October, said in an interview last year that when he became Manitoba's top cabinet representative, his first task was to figure out who had promised what to whom.
"I knew that Izzy had always asked for $100 million but... as far as I knew, Chrétien had only promised $30 million," Alcock said. "Izzy always told me, 'Oh well, that's what they're going to give us now, but the rest will come later.' He was very confident it would come."
Unfortunately, Alcock said, there was no formal documentation on a $100-million grant.
Other senior government sources said a lack of documentation was very much part of Chrétien's modus operandi. One former mandarin who worked closely with Chrétien said the prime minister was infamous for never putting things down on paper, then passing on wishes and commands verbally through the chain of command in the PMO.
However, Alcock said Martin's advisers wanted the CMHR killed as a Chrétien legacy project. Other senior federal sources said Martin was disinclined to support the museum because of the shrill attacks levelled at him by Asper-owned newspapers and television stations. And then there was a cabal of Toronto Liberals who had been confidants of Martin for years who simply did not like the idea of a project of this magnitude being located in Winnipeg.
"Some of the big Liberal players in Toronto were not going to support this project," Alcock said. "They loved the idea, but they loved it somewhere else other than Winnipeg."
As the Aspers continued to win Martin over, other events overtook the museum project. Struggling to distance himself from Adscam and facing a newly reunited Conservative Party, Martin dissolved Parliament in May 2004 in a bid to win his own renewed mandate.
Gail was desperate to meet face to face with Martin. In the dying days of the campaign, Martin agreed to see her at the Winnipeg airport following a campaign event. He was suffering from a terrible cold. Gail tried to find him some tea, then encouraged him to watch the inspirational video of the museum project that had been shown at the April 2003 announcement. The whole meeting went downhill from there.
"He was in the thick of the sponsorship scandal and facing the prospect of a minority government. And he had this horrible, gushy, disgusting cold. We had 15 minutes with him and wanted to show him this amazing video that really explained the project in heartfelt terms. Dad was in that video.
"And our goddamn DVD player didn't work. It was all a disaster."
Martin left without indicating any support for the museum.
In the June election, the Liberals could do no better than a minority. For the next 18 months, Martin's government lived under constant threat of non-confidence votes. During that time, Gail and Levy continued to build support for more funding.
On Sept. 24, Martin paid a visit to Winnipeg to announce the headquarters of the newly created Public Health Agency of Canada would be located in Winnipeg. After arriving in Winnipeg that afternoon, he made an unscheduled stop at Gail Asper's Wellington Crescent home to discuss the museum.
The news was not good. "On the plane to Winnipeg, Martin said, 'They're going to have to take the $30 million because that's it,' " Alcock said.
Not knowing Martin had already made up his mind, Gail said she made meticulous preparations to ensure the meeting went smoothly. She found out Martin loved Glenmorangie scotch whisky, and made sure the prime minister's glass was never empty.
"I was pouring tumblers of it," she said.
Brother Leonard Asper told Gail to approach the meeting like a salesman, remembering the best sales calls involve meetings where the customer does most of the talking.
"He told me, 'Gail, you have to stop talking. You have to listen.' So, I wrote 'shut up' on my hand."
Unfortunately, neither the scotch nor the missives on her palm did the trick. Martin was resolute that $30 million was all his government could muster for the museum.
In an interview, Martin said he made the effort to talk with the Aspers in person to avoid any misunderstanding. He denied the limit placed on funding at that time was evidence he personally disliked the project. Martin said he loved the concept and supported it being located in Winnipeg.
However, Martin said the final amount of federal support was determined not by him, but by senior officials in the Heritage department. "I supported the museum but... the final decision on the amount was a recommendation from officials."
Martin also said he had never been pressured by any of his supporters to build the museum in Toronto. "If there was pressure, it never got to me."
Following the meeting with Martin, Gail realized she was in over her head in the world of Ottawa politics, particularly since Izzy died.
"We had lost all of our cachet. With Dad gone, it was just Gail and Lenny, the kids of Izzy, and we're nobodies." In desperation, Gail reached out to Charlie Coffey, a senior vice-president with the Royal Bank of Canada who was a prominent Liberal and longtime family friend. As RBC's chief government relations executive, he was well-placed to advise the Aspers on the current state of federal politics.
Coffey said that in addition to carrying the stigma of being a Chrétien legacy project, there was a lot of pressure on Martin to relocate the project. "I was aware that a lot of people were saying this thing should not get built in Winnipeg," Coffey said.
And then there was the problem with the Holocaust content of the new museum, something that sparked concern of a different kind. "The resentment for this project was real. I sensed from time to time that it was just bubbling beneath the surface. I had people say to me, 'I can't contribute because the Aspers control all the media.' Everyone was reacting to their wealth and their religion.
On Coffey's advice, Gail retained former Liberal MP Patrick Gagnon, who was working as a lobbyist with a firm called the Parliamentary Group. Gagnon assembled what would be called "the advisory council," a group of former and current MPs and senators from all parties to support the museum that included heavyweights such as former prime ministers John Turner and Brian Mulroney. With the advisory council wielding its influence in back channels, and Alcock twisting arms in cabinet, there was some progress. Additional bridge funding was provided through Western Economic Diversification. And the PMO began to talk openly about "additional" capital funding.
But perhaps the biggest development that helped the museum occurred in February 2005 when Ottawa and Manitoba reached an agreement to share equally the entire $660-million cost to expand the Red River Floodway. The money would come out of a special fund set aside for infrastructure projects of national importance, meaning it would not count against Manitoba's annual infrastructure program.
Sensing that a deal was close at hand, pro-museum forces decided to make a stand at the annual Juno Awards celebration, held in Winnipeg on the first weekend in April. It was at this event, the first time ever that Canada's pre-eminent music awards show was held in Winnipeg, that the now-iconic star lapel pin was unveiled. Gail said she worked feverishly behind the scenes to get anyone and everyone to wear a star pin. Gail went as far as to call former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney, who had loaned his support to the all-party advisory council, to ask his son Ben Mulroney, a television host who co-hosted the Juno broadcast, to wear a star pin when he appeared on air. The senior Mulroney agreed, and Ben was seen throughout the weekend with the stylish silver star on his lapel.
Alcock said the political will to meet the $100-million contribution suddenly fell into place. "Once we got (finance minister Ralph) Goodale on board and showed him there was widespread support in cabinet for this, Martin finally allowed us to do it," Alcock said.
On April 15, an event was held to celebrate a new funding commitment. This time at the downtown Centennial Concert Hall, the event was held to coincide with the announcement of the winner of the international architecture competition. More than 1,400 people jammed the hall to meet Antoine Predock, the architect from New Mexico who had been selected to design the CMHR, and listen to Reg Alcock confirm that Ottawa would indeed provide $100 million for construction of the museum.
However, as was the case two years earlier, there were some disturbing undertones. Like Chrétien in 2003, Martin did not travel to Winnipeg to make the announcement. His absence spoke volumes about the political uncertainty that still surrounded the project. And the $100-million pledge was not accompanied by a plan to cover operating funds. Martin demanded the museum be self-sustaining from private donations. Without that revenue, the capital funds were off the table.
Through the spring and deep into the summer, Gail and Levy travelled to Ottawa weekly, taking meetings with PMO operatives to press the case for operating money. Levy said the PMO offered no solutions and instead instructed Levy to go from department to department and ask them to find money to fund operations. "We were really in a catch-22," Levy said. "They wanted us to prove sustainability, and we needed $20 million to operate. To generate that kind of revenue, we'd need an endowment of something like $500 million, which was unrealistic. So, I went from deputy minister to deputy minister -- and got thrown out of every office. They told me, 'If you want money, then convince the PMO to increase our budget.' "
It was during these dark days that it became evident the Aspers in general, and Gail and Moe Levy in particular, had worn out their welcome in Ottawa. The harder they pushed for operating funds, the more hardened the Martin government became.
"Anytime the word 'Asper' was mentioned in Ottawa, eyes would roll back in their heads like 14 year olds," said a Manitoba official who worked closely on the file. "I think the only reason Martin agreed to support it, was that he was afraid of the CanWest media empire. Martin was never receptive to the project. Whatever he said, he hated it."
While the battle for operating funds continued, fate was ready to deal the museum supporters yet another curve ball. On Nov. 28, 2005, after more than a year of brinksmanship, opposition parties finally brought down the Martin government with a vote of non-confidence. The nation was headed back to the polls once again.
At first, Martin appeared he would retain power. However, when it became public the RCMP were investigating Finance Minister Ralph Goodale's office for possibly tipping off investors about changes to income trust rules (charges that were later deemed unfounded), Liberal support collapsed and gave the newly united Conservative party a minority mandate. Martin resigned as leader in the wake of his defeat, and Stephen Harper took over as prime minister. For the second time in just two years, the Aspers were facing a new leader and a new government.
It wasn't what you'd call a good start to the relationship.
On May 27, 2004, during the federal election campaign, then opposition leader Stephen Harper held a news conference at the foot of the Esplanade Riel, using it as a symbol of government waste. Critics of the bridge complained about its $21-million cost, which included $1 million for a café and bathrooms at the centre of the span.
"It's a nice bridge. But I wouldn't pay $21 million for it, and I wouldn't pay $1 million for a toilet," he said. "When you pay that much for a toilet, you feel you shouldn't really do what you do in a toilet."
Ever the fierce defender of Winnipeg, Gail rebuked Harper in a letter to the Free Press. "I find Mr. Harper's comments distressing and depressing because the world he would have us inhabit in Winnipeg would be a far bleaker, uglier one, and I for one believe that the spiritual and economic well-being of Winnipeggers is far better served by placing a value on beauty."
The letter was barely out in print when Gail received calls from museum supporters appalled at her lack of political acumen. A public rebuke of a man who had a very real shot at being the next prime minister was not good for the long-term prospects of the museum. She was advised to get another meeting with Harper and make amends.
On Oct. 13, Harper was the keynote speaker at a Manitoba Progressive Conservative fundraising dinner. With brother David paving the way, Gail got a meeting with Harper at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Winnipeg. Gail said she got the apology out of the way first, suggesting it would have been better to take up the issue privately. Then, it was on to the museum.
Harper grilled her on the economics of the museum proposal -- sources indicated Harper was appalled by the total price of the project -- and why it had to be built in Winnipeg. Gail said Harper was supportive, but also made the point that Ottawa should only pay for the basic costs of the project.
"He told me, 'If you want the fancy stuff added in, then you should pay for that,' " Gail said.
The meeting seemed to pay dividends. In the January 2006 election campaign, the Tories agreed to match the Liberal pledge of $100 million. By election day, Gail had in hand letters signed by the leaders of the three national parties, all committing to the $100-million contribution. Her apology ensured Harper would try to pick up where the Liberals left off.
Following Harper's victory, David Asper worked with other sympathetic Tories, including Sen. Terry Stratton, to open up a dialogue with the new government on both capital and operating costs. Everyone assumed Manitoba's senior Conservative MP Vic Toews, who had just been appointed justice minister, would take the lead. However, Toews declined to meet with the Aspers to discuss the museum. Toews was, according to Tory sources, profoundly disinterested in the whole project.
"Many of us believed this started when everyone thought it was a Holocaust museum," said one senior government source. "That's why many of us were not supportive initially. However, Vic was also concerned there wasn't a single Mennonite on the board of the museum. Vic wasn't against it. He just wasn't that supportive."
Toews handed off the file to rookie backbencher Joy Smith, a Winnipeg MP who was not considered particularly tight with the regional minister. Many political observers believed Toews' decision was a back-handed effort to stall the project. Smith, however, did not see it that way.
"On the surface, the whole thing looked rather impossible," she said. "Given the cost, most of the people I talked to didn't think the prime minister would go along with this plan. I was just getting to know the prime minister, but I thought very strongly he would get behind it. We had to all agree to take a chance on this because it was a very daring vision."
Smith made regular reports to the PMO on the progress of the project and private fundraising. She also arranged sessions for Gail and Levy to meet with the new Manitoba Tory caucus.
Finally, after weeks of lobbying, David and Gail travelled to Ottawa in March 2006 for a meeting they hoped would seal the deal once and for all.
Harper was still concerned about the cost of the project. But Gail produced a graph for Harper showing the small amount in arts and culture funding Manitoba received from Ottawa each year. Playing off Harper's western sensibilities, Gail said she argued that even with its huge construction and operating costs, the museum was not out of step with federal funding to other provinces.
Harper was flanked by deputy Heritage Minister Judith Larocque, who had been among the staunchest opponents of the project. After listening to their argument, Gail said Harper turned to Larocque and posed a question: "I want to know what my options are."
There is little doubt Harper knew exactly what his predecessors had been told -- this was a private museum and the federal government does not fund private museums. But by asking for options, Harper was sending a clear message he was looking at a whole new approach to funding this museum.
In March 2007, a full year after their meeting with Harper in Ottawa, Gail Asper and Moe Levy went to Doer's office in the Manitoba legislature for a critical conference call with Harper.
Federal officials had been crunching numbers and studying scenarios, trying to figure out how to provide capital and operating funds to a private museum. Their conclusion was that it had to be a national museum.
"The prime minister kept saying, 'We know you wanted this to be a private-sector thing, but it's got to be a national museum,'" Gail recalled. "And we kept saying to him, 'No, that's OK. We need the federal government to make this museum everything that it can be.' "
Over the next year, federal officials worked with the Friends of the CMHR to hammer out a "definitive agreement" on the creation of a new Crown corporation that would oversee construction and operation of the museum. It was a difficult year, with draft agreements going back and forth between Ottawa and Winnipeg. The privately established museum board had already awarded contracts for the general contractor and the architect, decisions that would normally have been made by the Crown corporation. It was decided to retain all the contracts awarded by the private board, in large part to ensure there were no undue delays in proceeding with construction, which would only add to the cost of the project.
And even with a consensus it should be a national museum, the Aspers did not go quietly.
"Gail needed the most convincing," said a senior provincial official. "She always talked about this being her baby, about how she gave birth to this and watched it grow into something. It was hard for her to let go."
As negotiations for the transfer of control over the project continued, Gail and Levy became more of a liability. They were constantly rewriting the agreement and sending new drafts back to Ottawa, which enraged officials in the PMO. Provincial officials began to use a term to describe the constant demand for changes: "We called it being 'Levied' whenever Moe would get involved," one provincial source said.
Despite all the tinkering, an agreement was in place by late March 2007 to create the Crown corporation that would ultimately build and operate the museum. And then, Levy struck again with an 11th-hour revision that he faxed from the premier's office without Doer's knowledge.
"The PMO called right away and said, 'We've got your changes, and they're pretty extensive, and I think we're just going to cut our losses,'' one provincial official recalled. "They had their advance people on the ground making plans for a big splashy announcement. They pulled all their people out. Doer was very upset because he hadn't signed off on what the Aspers sent to Ottawa."
Doer and his senior officials eventually smoothed the feathers in the PMO, and the event was re-rescheduled for late April.
On April 20, the 25th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Harper came to Winnipeg to unleash a series of "firsts." He became the first prime minister to make a museum announcement in person. And he became the first prime minister to create a national museum outside of Ottawa.
"Never before has there been a collaboration of this scale to develop a national museum," Harper said before a packed ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel, "but if there ever were a Canadian cultural institution suited for a private-public partnership, it is this one."
The deal that should never have been done is, currently, not completely done.
Two years away from its scheduled opening date, the museum is short on funds. It has been known for some time the museum needed another $25 million to be completed. However, sources indicate that shortfall has grown to $45 million thanks to inflation and construction setbacks.
Harper has flatly refused to grant the money, however negotiations continue on some form of bridge financing. If a solution is to be found, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, Manitoba's regional minister will likely play a key role. An ambivalent bystander at best, Toews has never been a champion of the project. Nonetheless, he has been tasked by the PMO to sort out the funding mess, a scenario that has the blood of museum proponents running cold.
If all that is not enough, in mid-December, CMHR board chairman Arni Thorsteinson resigned. The museum announced Thorsteinson was leaving to take a more direct role in private fundraising. However, federal sources confirmed the PMO asked Thorsteinson, a longtime Tory supporter, to step aside as a condition for continuing negotiations on bridge financing.
Talks on a bridge loan have collapsed amid word the project is now topping out at $351 million. The board of the CMHR has been tasked with making up the overrun entirely with private donations. The museum has given itself a deadline of March 31 2012 to either find the additional money, or push back the opening to 2015, two years later than originally planned.
Will Ottawa stand by and watch as the museum misses its 2014 opening target? Perhaps, but to do so would make the project extremely vulnerable to its critics, those who have condemned the museum for its total cost and controversial content. It would cast the federal government as Grinch-like in its management of the museum construction. After all, even as the museum's total budget has increased, the federal government's portion of direct funding has remained the same: $100 million. Private donors, on the other hand, increased their support to $150 million from $65 million. Never before have private donors supported a national museum on this scale.
It's a classic question of whether the glass is half full or half empty. Is the CMHR an out-of-control, white elephant sucking up taxpayer money? Or is it a bold, iconic national institution that Ottawa is getting for about 30 cents on the dollar? That debate will likely continue for many years to come.
The original museum deal was done with a handshake between two master deal makers. It has been defined as much by politics as it has by money. It was improbable from the outset, impractical in its architectural and intellectual vision and impossible to manage financially.
On many levels, it's tough to imagine the content of the museum, whenever it opens, being as compelling as the story behind its creation.