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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights promises to be beautiful, from the architecture to the inspiring exhibits.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights promises to be beautiful, from the architecture to the inspiring exhibits.


a museum of the future? Canadian Human Rights Museum

by Marianne Cerilli | July 18, 2008

The Canadian Human Rights Museum has become the dream of many people. The mission – to advance the understanding and support for Human Rights in Canada and around the world – is shared by most Canadians. Many participated in consultations to offer their ideas and priorities for the exhibits. Over 2,300 Canadians have donated about $93 million to make that dream come true.

In April 2007, on behalf of all of us, Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to cover the $22 million annual costs and have the federal government operate the museum. It has also contributed $100 million in capital costs, the province of Manitoba $40 million, the city of Winnipeg $20 million.

What started as an idea of the late media man, Izzy Asper, is now taking on a life of its own. Championed by daughter Gail, with a pledge of $20 million from the Asper Foundation, the vision is an international human rights education centre that begs the question: Can a museum be about the future? Can it change biased attitudes and challenge people’s assumptions about equality, and justice? Can a museum inspire people to act?

Remembering the past can help prevent repetition of human rights abuses, and this has been the focus of other museums. However, according to Ms. Asper, public consultations earlier this year sent a clear message that Canadians want more than a retelling of history’s atrocities, like the Holocaust, Canada’s residential schools, or the Winnipeg general strike’s Bloody Saturday.

At one of the many fundraising events for the museum, Gail Asper was asked about including exhibits that are on the cutting edge of current human rights struggles. She answered, “The clear message from the museum consultations is that people want environmental rights included, as well as social and economic rights.”

According to the museum’s beautiful Website video, part of the plan is to showcase organizations currently working to realize human rights and address abuses. This interactive “exhibit” would encourage and allow people to get involved directly to effect change – real time. The educational exhibits being designed would engage people’s hearts and minds with the invitation to intervene. This potential to effect change would make the museum unique and could sell the huge investment to skeptics.

The irony is not missed of locating the museum on historic First Nations meeting place – the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Understandably, when some people hear about the sums of money being targeted to the museum, they point out the incongruity of teaching about human rights while so many people, Aboriginal people in particular, are having their rights ignored.

  • The $100 million in construction costs covered by the federal government is about double the $40.8 million in the current federal budget for Canada’s Affordable Housing Initiative.
  • The $22 million annual operating budget could pay for much-needed housing for 5,000 Aboriginal people now on housing waiting lists in Manitoba.
  • 10,000 immigrants and refugees who are slated to come to Winnipeg yearly join that waiting list, too.

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.

— International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Don Marks of Grassroots News said, “How can we set ourselves up as a centre for human rights when Aboriginal people are living 27 to a house? Aboriginal people are discriminated against as individuals by landlords when looking for housing and as a group by the federal government who does not give shelter allowance for those on reserves relying on social assistance.”

While the compelling video on the museum Website features Elizabeth Cook talking about her experience as a residential school survivor, the concern remains about how various equity-seeking groups, like First Nations, will be represented.

And it will take strong and steady efforts and real resources for Canada to change current conditions, securing social and economic rights now and in the future.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights promises to be beautiful, from the architecture to the inspiring exhibits. It will also be the first time federal money will go into a museum outside the Ottawa area. Now that the goal of $265–$311 million is within reach, the next step before a construction date is set becomes the selection of the staff and board of trustees. It is this important group of people who will determine if a museum becomes a viable way to improve human rights.


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