Arts & Life
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This article was published 19/9/2014 (2122 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The opening ceremony for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was marked by deeply emotional and symbolic moments.
The blessings of First Nations and Métis elders. Moving musical performances by Maria Aragon and the Tenors. Accolades from Gov. Gen. David Johnston, Premier Greg Selinger and Mayor Sam Katz. A teary but joyful address by Gail Asper, daughter of museum founder Israel Asper.
Less noticeable, but no less remarkable, was the moment Stuart Murray, the 59-year-old CMHR president and chief executive officer, vaulted up the stairs onto the stage and took his place behind the microphone.
It wasn't the physical act itself that was remarkable; Murray is the very picture of trim and fit. No, it's that Murray, appointed to head up the CMHR in 2009, was still around to see this glorious building come to fruition.
There were many times over the last five years when it appeared Murray wouldn't survive long enough to see opening day.
In addition to building a museum, Murray had to manage the often bitter relationship between Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government and Gail Asper, the relentless driving force behind the project.
In 2007, Harper decided to devote $100 million of federal money to help build the museum and take over the project as a national museum. A Crown corporation was formed amid great fanfare over the fact this would be the first national museum ever built outside Ottawa.
That jubilation quickly devolved into acrimony and disillusionment when it was learned the earliest estimates for the museum's total cost, assembled by the Asper Foundation, were desperately insufficient. As the price tag grew, so too did the conflict between the Aspers and the PMO.
What started out as a jubilant, history-making agreement to build the first national museum outside Ottawa descended into a years-long acrimonious war of attrition over the escalating costs of the museum.
And it was Murray, the affable but unsuccessful former leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives, who was caught in the middle of that battle of titans.
The same people who had appointed him to the position became the biggest threat to his tenure. Tories grew to resent Murray for failing to contain both construction costs and Gail Asper, who never shied away from taunting Harper and the Tories for not providing more money to complete the museum.
(In conversation with a source, I mentioned Murray had rotator cuff surgery on both shoulders over the past year or so. "That's no surprise," my source said. "He's had his arms out for five years, trying to keep Harper and Asper from killing each other.")
Some may think the animosity was misplaced, but cost had become a huge issue. The final price tag for the building had grown to $351 million, more than twice the original estimates. Harper refused to increase the federal contribution, and Gail Asper was resolute fundraising alone could not make up the difference. There was a very real chance the project would become moribund. The original opening date was pushed back indefinitely.
By 2011, it seemed Murray's time at the helm of the CMHR would be coming to an end. With a stalemate on funding, Ottawa turfed Asper loyalist Arni Thorsteinson, then the chairman of the museum's board, and installed Eric Hughes, a Calgary accountant and Harper confidant.
The move was as much pragmatic as it was symbolic. Hughes brought stability to the board, while Thorsteinson's departure served as a warning: In a battle between the Aspers and the PMO, the latter held the real power.
Eventually, a deal was done to convert some of the federal operating monies into capital funds so construction could be completed. Hughes played a huge role in that deal, but Murray laid the groundwork, too.
More importantly, through all the political drama, Murray moved museum construction along, making ends meet by gently massaging budget lines and calming frayed nerves at the Asper Foundation, where there have always been concerns the final product would fall short of Izzy Asper's grand vision.
The fact the museum opened, and Murray still has a job, suggests he may be one of the most underappreciated politicians Manitoba has ever seen.
There are many people outside politics who believe all patronage appointments are plum jobs with maximum paycheques and minimal duties. Murray's appointment is proof some patronage gigs are less plum and more problematic.
And that, occasionally, they go to good people.
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