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Murray caught up in political animosity

Conservatives, Asper family at odds over museum

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/10/2014 (1042 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Think of it as death by patronage.

Just a few weeks after a splashy official opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, politics finally caught up with Stuart Murray, the CMHR's president and CEO, a longtime Tory who was appointed to the job just five years ago.

Stuart Murray (left) and MP Shelly Glover in August  unveiled a stamp commemorating the new rights museum, along with Canada Post official Bill Davidson.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Stuart Murray (left) and MP Shelly Glover in August unveiled a stamp commemorating the new rights museum, along with Canada Post official Bill Davidson.

Without warning this week, federal Heritage Minister Shelly Glover informed Murray his contract -- which expires Nov. 1 -- would not be renewed. No replacement has been named. In fact, the process of finding a replacement has not really begun.

For his part, Murray admitted he was a bit shocked when Glover called and informed him of the decision. "The end certainly came sooner than I had expected," Murray said in an interview.

'The end certainly came sooner than I had expected' -- Stuart Murray

Murray would not discuss the details of his demise any further, only that he wanted to stay and had good reason to believe his contract would be renewed.

Although Murray would not say it, sources confirmed the federally appointed board of the museum had in fact recommended his contract be renewed. The sources said the board was similarly given no warning by Ottawa its recommendation had been rejected.

The boards of Crown corporations can only recommend appointment of presidents and CEOs; the power to appoint start with, and remains with, the federal government. Specifically with the Government in Council, which means the federal cabinet. Which really means the decision can be traced back to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Why drop the axe on Murray now, just a few weeks after the opening?

Officially, the word from Eric Hughes, chairman of the museum's board, was that Murray's contract was up and it was decided to bring in someone new to take up "the next cycle of strategic planning." He would not elaborate.

Sources believe part of the decision was due to the fact nearly half of the museum's galleries will not open to the public until mid-November, nearly two months late.

However, when all factors are considered, it appears more likely Murray was a casualty of the increasingly bitter relationship between Harper's government and the Asper family, particularly Gail Asper, who championed the museum in the name of her late father, Israel Asper.

Federal Tories hold Murray largely responsible for not being able to keep a tighter rein on Gail, who privately and publicly pressured Harper to provide more money as the cost of the museum kept going up.

It appeared that in the lead-up to the opening last month, Murray would be spared as focus shifted to celebrating the launch of a new federal museum. However, conflict was building behind the scenes, ultimately boiling over on Sept. 18, the night before the official opening ceremonies.

Sources said tensions were already running high when Harper cancelled plans to attend the opening ceremonies. The tension only increased at a gala dinner that night for donors and dignitaries hosted by the Friends of the CMHR, the Asper-led fundraising foundation.

Emotions boiled over at that dinner after former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien delivered an impromptu speech that dealt in part with his own role in the making of the museum.

Chrétien had struck the original deal with Izzy Asper to provide $100 million for construction. However, Chrétien insisted the museum remain private and his government would not fund operations. It was Harper who made the museum a reality when he agreed to create a Crown corporation to help with construction and operation.

Sources confirmed federal Tories at the gala, including Glover, were enraged at Chrétien's speech, which they saw as an attempt by Gail Asper, a prominent Liberal, to punish Harper for skipping the opening ceremonies.

In a logic that only makes sense in the world of political patronage, Murray ended up wearing the blame for these and other perceived slights. This, despite the fact sources said he had the faith of the board and its chairman, Hughes, a close confidant of Harper.

Murray's role in the making of the museum -- which was primarily to occupy the uncertain ground between two powerful and petulant combatants -- should be seen as a great political accomplishment. Although the CMHR's success is still a matter of debate, it is open. Given all that has happened, that's a remarkable feat in itself.

Instead, Murray must suffer the indignity of being thrown under the bus by his political masters with the knowledge none of his supposed allies has the fortitude to pull him to safety.

It's a sad end to a remarkable accomplishment. But then again, it's hardly an unprecedented scenario.

Political appointees live by the good graces of their political benefactors. And just as often, they die by those same hands.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Dan Lett.

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