Controversy over National Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg

In downtown WINNIPEG, the slow-moving Red and Assiniboine rivers converge at a place called the Forks before rolling north toward Hudson Bay. Once a meeting place for natives, this spot is now the focal point of a controversial effort to redevelop the city's once-crumbling core.

Controversy over National Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg

In downtown WINNIPEG, the slow-moving Red and Assiniboine rivers converge at a place called the Forks before rolling north toward Hudson Bay. Once a meeting place for natives, this spot is now the focal point of a controversial effort to redevelop the city's once-crumbling core. Organizers pushing to build the Canadian Museum for Human Rights see it as the ideal location for their project, the first national museum outside the Ottawa region and the last, unfinished vision of the late Izzy ASPER, who championed the idea of building a monument to HUMAN RIGHTS in his hometown. Asper envisaged an institution dedicated to Canadian issues like the Charter of Rights, residential schools, and the Acadian expulsion, as well as global events such as the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. If completed by 2010 as planned, say organizers, the museum, looking like an experiment in glass sculpting, would also be an architectural wonder akin to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, and a boost to a city desperately trying to reinvent itself.

But, for now, it's just an empty spot of snow and grass, and unless questions about its viability are resolved by this summer, it could forever remain that way. Years of fundraising, planning and escalating costs have come down to a high noon showdown with the federal government over who should ultimately fund and own the museum. While the project was born of the private sector, it now appears the bulk of the financial responsibility will rest with the feds. What's more, it's a museum the government is still not sure it actually wants.

Asper first proposed the unlikely idea of a world-renowned museum in this modest Prairie city to Pierre Trudeau. But he only began seriously pursuing the project in his final years. "Everything does not have to be in Ottawa," he told the CBC in his last interview, in 2003, the year he died. "In a well-developed democracy, the principal institutions and the vision of the nation have got to be spread across the country." There is little doubt that his idea has broad support, including that of the Governor General, who has agreed to be the museum's patron. More than $200 million of $311 million in capital has already been raised and a design, by U.S. architect Antoine Predock, completed. The federal government has promised $100 million in capital, on top of the province's $30 million and the city's $20 million. Organizers have also lined up nearly $50 million in private donations, $20 million of it from the Asper Foundation.

But in many regards, the museum is turning out to be the government's unplanned child - not necessarily unwanted, just not something it envisioned on its long-term agenda. The main issue: finding money to keep its doors open. Former heritage minister Sheila Copps said early on there was a commitment to provide some operating money on top of the $100 million, but no formal agreement materialized. The museum is now estimated to cost $20 million a year to run, and $14 million of that, says Gail Asper, Izzy's daughter and the driving force behind the project, must come from the federal government if the project is to go ahead. "Its survival is contingent on the federal government contributing 70 per cent of the operating costs," she told Maclean's in a recent interview.

The request is unprecedented - no museum outside of the Ottawa region receives federal operating money, and officials at HERITAGE CANADA stress that it is government policy not to provide ongoing operating funding to any museum it does not fully own. "It certainly has an outlook that is national in scope," says Lyn Elliot Sherwood, the executive director of the ministry's heritage group, about the proposed museum. Then again, several other museums also have national perspectives, like Pier 21 in Halifax, and do not receive federal operating money, she says. "This was presented to the government as a private project that would benefit from government investment."

The museum's organizers are standing pat. Gail Asper, who has inherited her father's persuasiveness, argues Canada sorely lacks an institution of this kind. "This is a national responsibility," she says. "If we wanted it in Ottawa, I think it would have been built a lot faster." The challenge, she says, is to get the federal government thinking beyond Ottawa and environs, where every national cultural institution is located. The CANADIAN MUSEUM OF CIVILIZATION and the Canadian War Museum together get about $60 million a year from the government. In comparison, Asper points out, the $14 million she is seeking is a modest amount.

"We're doing something almost in reverse," says Charlie Coffey, a Royal Bank vice-president in Toronto and the chair of the museum's advisory council, "where the private sector is driving something Canadians, through surveys, have said they want." Indeed, in a poll conducted for the museum last year, 58 per cent of respondents felt a human rights museum should be built, and 70 per cent agreed the government should contribute to construction costs. The plan all along was to have "a classic private-public partnership" with funding from both sectors, says Coffey.

But the museum's poll did not ask if people would visit the museum or if they supported the government funding a new national museum indefinitely. Organizers hope the museum will draw anywhere from 300,000 to 800,000 visitors each year (as much as the population of Winnipeg), but this is a lofty goal considering the typical museum is lucky to draw 150,000. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights could be a success, following in Bilbao's footsteps, or just as easily a white elephant.

The museum business is a risky and often unprofitable one. Across Canada, 2,500 museums and related institutions compete for a sliver of the $30 million the federal government spends each year on so-called heritage institutions. "Frankly, just about every museum in Canada is struggling," says John McAvity, head of the Canadian Museums Association. "The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is a wonderful concept, but it is an independent organization and just the appellation 'Canadian' applied to it does not mean it is a federal institution. They think that by using the word 'Canadian' they deserve federal support, but it really unfortunately comes down to the question of ownership." If organizers were to wrangle money from the federal government, it would "open a very big door" for other museums looking for money, he notes.

Asper says organizers would happily hand over control and ownership of the museum, once built, to the government if those were the terms needed to secure funding for operations. Or, if the project were set up as a private-public partnership, the government might be given a majority of seats on the board, which has yet to be established. "We would like to turn it over to the federal government and say, 'here it is on a platter,' " says Coffey. Still, the government appears hesitant to accept this offer, which looks a bit like the kind of gift that keeps on taking.

Some observers have questioned if David Asper's public support of Prime Minister Stephen HARPER during the last election could shift the winds of federal support in Winnipeg's direction. David Asper is Gail Asper's brother, and the chairman of the National Post. Gail Asper rejects the notion that there is any link. "Whether my brother likes to endorse people or not has nothing to do with this project." But, she points out, the West receives a disproportionately small amount of federal cultural funding and the museum would be one way of correcting that imbalance.

So far, only Asper Foundation money has been spent, but funding issues must be resolved by spring or early summer if the project is to go ahead, Asper says. "Time is of the essence." Given the money already invested in the design process, it is unlikely the project will be altogether abandoned if Ottawa doesn't commit to operational funding. But the economics of museums in Canada seems to dictate that the museum would be nearly impossible to sustain privately, or with provincial money alone. The GLENBOW MUSEUM in Calgary, the country's most entrepreneurial private museum, covers its operating expenses through provincial grants, a large endowment fund, and business operations such as memberships, shop operations and ticket sales. Like many good-sized museums, it draws about 140,000 paid visitors annually. "In the Calgary market, in the hottest business community in the country, we can do $10 million a year," says Mike Robinson, Glenbow's president. "It would be very difficult in this market with our current business model to do more than that." Robinson says a modest human rights museum might succeed if it closely followed a model like the Glenbow's.

Organizers, however, are not interested in building anything less than the extraordinary. "Go big, or go home," says Asper. Both Asper and Coffey frequently quote Izzy in his last interview when he said, "Canadians have a tendency to aim for the middle." Should the project be forced to downsize, it would, they argue, not just be the project's failure, but Ottawa's and Canada's too. "Canada has a great role to play in the advancement of human rights," Asper says. "Let's not nickle-and-dime it."

Maclean's March 27, 2006