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The Inception of The Canadian Human Rights Museum

Hope For A Changed World

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights is the first of its kind in the world, examining global human rights as a concept rather than in reference to a specific event, movement, victim group or regional history. Designed by renowned architect, Antoine Predock, this is not a museum of artifacts and bones; it is a bittersweet unravelling of triumphs and injustices –a crucible of raw and beautiful storytelling that compels us to reexamine what it means to be human.


Call to Action

On July 18th, 2000, at eleven o’clock in the evening, Moe Levy, Executive Director of The Asper Foundation, was awakened by a phone call from his boss.

“I’ve found the land,” Israel Asper said. “It’s right by the river, right by the bridge, right across from the St. Boniface Basilica. That’s going to be the museum.”

The Winnipeg media mogul and philanthropist dreamed of building a Museum of Tolerance where young people could immerse themselves in stories of Canadian and international human rights, and be inspired to champion rights and freedoms globally.

The Asper Foundation had funded an educational program for youth to learn about the Holocaust and human rights in Washington, D.C., but there was nothing similar in this country. Asper’s daughter, Gail, who accompanied the tour groups, was surprised by how little the students knew about Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “That was the genesis,” she says. “My dad and Moe talked about a museum in Winnipeg that would educate kids and prompt change.”

Her father and Levy spent two years developing a business plan before she came on board to assess the national appetite for the project and to garner support. They launched a private initiative in April, 2003, just months before Izzy Asper’s sudden death.

Now, over a decade later, what began as an individual’s dream has culminated in a national treasure and international destination devoted to human rights awareness and promotion.

The $351-million project, funded through private donations and three levels of government, is Canada’s first National museum built outside Ottawa.

Credit Aaron Cohen

Changing Perspectives

The land Asper had spotted was a patch of prairie at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers – once the heart of Winnipeg’s early fur trade and an ancient meeting place for Indigenous peoples. Now it anchors a 24,000 square metre structure rising from the earth like some gentle, prehistoric creature whose silent call beckons us to enter and bear witness.

“Dad always wanted the building to be a Canadian icon,” says Gail Asper who helped to choose New Mexico-based Antoine Predock from the flood of entries in an international architectural competition.

Predock, whose organic spaces are a trademark of his architectural style, consulted with Aboriginal Elders when he was developing his vision for the museum. Each of the more than 500 holes drilled for piles holds a medicine bag – an offering of thanks to the land. The structure rests on four massive concrete ‘roots’ which have been planted with 50 species of tall grass prairie, the largest installation of natural vegetation in western Canada. A ‘mountain’ that holds ten stacked galleries is clad in 400,000-year-old Manitoba Tyndall stone, and an enormous glass cloud of windows wrapped around the northern façade is created in the image of dove wings.

“The first impulse was to engage the land in a way that evokes a connection that is such a fundamental yearning by many cultures,” says Predock who wanted the building to have a communicative power that enhanced the mission of the Museum.

The path of enlightenment begins in the Great Hall, as hushed and dark as a cave, and ends with the Tower of Hope, a 23-storey illuminated spire that points heavenwards like a beacon. A kilometer of glowing alabaster ramps (pictured below) guide visitors through the exhibits, delivering them from darkness to light.

On the third floor, a Garden of Contemplation, lush with pools and plantings, is built entirely of basalt – a rock extracted from the earth’s core and found throughout the globe. On the sixth floor, a stunning panoramic view of the city reminds visitors that by altering your stance even slightly, your perspective also changes.

“I’m often asked what my favourite, my most important building is,” says Predock. “This is it.”

Credit Aaron Cohen

Transforming Our World

“One of the key components of the Museum is education,” says CMHR President and CEO, Stuart Murray, who adds that stories will be showcased from multiple perspectives. While the Museum’s scope is global, many stories are personal.

Sigi Wassermann was a young Jewish boy in Germany who witnessed the 1939 nation wide attack on Jewish homes and synagogues. He was one of thousands of children, frightened and alone, sent by parents to Great Britain to escape the violence. For many years, Sigi did not speak publicly about his experience. His poignant recounting is shared in Examining the Holocaust – part of three international galleries positioned to reference the fragile nature of human rights.

In 1946, Viola Desmond, a black Nova Scotian, sat in the whites-only section of a segregated movie theatre. She was removed by authorities and arrested, and was later convicted and fined for failing to pay a penny in tax. Despite appeals, Desmond was never able to clear her name before her death in 1965. In the Canadian Journeys gallery, a small alcove houses a replica of a 1940s movie theatre which shares her story.

Maréshia Rucker and three other students from Rochelle, Georgia, challenged tradition by organizing their high school’s first prom for both black and white students in 2013. Faced with hostility and division from some of the community, Maréshia and her friends created a Facebook page called, “Love Has No Color: Integrated Prom.” The page received an outpouring of support and garnered international media attention. Maréshia’s red satin prom dress, a symbol of her powerful action, is displayed in the Inspiring Change gallery, alongside other stirring examples of hope, such as powerful political graffiti from the Egyptian uprising in Cairo.

The Museum also houses a vast digital collection of recorded oral histories for use by human rights researchers around the world. In Canadian Journeys, there is a booth for visitors to share their own story.

“This miracle could only have happened in Winnipeg,” says Gail Asper, who spent a decade as national campaign chair, raising a healthy portion of the $145 million in private sector dollars from donors who have ties to the city.

“We are a young nation but this museum allows Canada to be a leader in human rights, says Stuart Murray. “Our goal is to inspire people to become champions in their own way.”

In that, they have succeeded. The Canadian Museum of Human Rights brings together a world of wisdom, achievements and experiences, to validate our past, strengthen our present and awaken us to the possibilities of the future.

“My dad would be proud,” says Gail Asper, “but I know what he would say: Now the real work must begin.”