CANADIAN MUSEUM FOR HUMAN RIGHTS — The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, “a global treasure,” sits at The Forks in Winnipeg, a parcel of Treaty One land at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and a meeting place for aboriginal peoples dating back 6,000 years.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights opens

By James Buchok

WINNIPEG — The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an achievement described as a shining beacon, a global treasure and “the people’s museum” was officially opened Sept. 19 in Winnipeg.

“If there was ever a question about what Canadians can achieve, let this be the answer,” said museum president Stuart Murray. “We open these doors to be inspired by people who were neither born heroes nor sought glory but whose actions changed the course of history.”

The CMHR is the first Canadian national museum to be established in more than 40 years, and the only national museum to be located outside the Ottawa National Capital Region.

The museum was the dream of businessman and philanthropist Izzy Asper who died unexpectedly in 2003 at age 71. His daughter Gail took up the cause, spearheading the museum’s development.

“Fourteen years ago my father stood here in a gravel parking lot and selected the perfect location for a human rights museum, in the heart of his beloved Winnipeg and his beloved Canada,” Gail Asper said.

The gleaming cloud-like structure of more than 1,600 panes of glass, no two alike, floating on a base of Manitoba Tyndall stone, sits at The Forks, a parcel of Treaty One land at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and a meeting place for Aboriginal peoples dating back 6,000 years.

Museum trustee Wilton Littlechild said the creation of the museum is “a great journey where the views and perspectives of indigenous people and others were sought and included . It took us a long time to receive recognition as human beings with human rights.”

But, he added, there remain governments that still deny the rights of indigenous people. “We have come a long way but we have a long way to go.” Littlechild said the museum brings “a new spirit. When human rights win, Canada and the world wins.”

Canada’s Governor General David Johnston brought greetings from the queen, who on a visit to the building site four years ago brought the gift of a cornerstone from Runnymede, site of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the birth of constitutional law in England.

“We say to the world ‘yes’ we can build a multicultural society in which everyone is welcome,” Johnston said, adding there remain in Canada “far too man incidents of bigotry, marginalization and ignorance. We must avoid complacency and be willing to engage in dialogue and stand up for what is right and good. I invite all Canadians to visit this place to rediscover the basic rights that need protection.”

Asper said when her father died she and her mother and brothers had to decide whether to pursue his dream. “And that is when a miracle happened,” she said, as the family received an outpouring of encouragement.

She lauded the “courageous decision” of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his role in the bestowing of a national designation on the museum by Parliament in 2008. “It is the only thing that could have made this possible, “ Asper said. But, she added, it helped that at the time the museum had attracted more than 8,200 donors totalling $17 million, and to date has raided close to $150 million, which Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz called “the most successful fundraising campaign of its kind in the history of Canada.”

“This beautiful journey of action and education has started,” Asper said, to a long ovation.

The museum’s main floor gallery provides an introduction to human rights with a floor to ceiling timeline of 100 events and people going back 1,000 years. A gallery of Canadian human rights history depicts 90 stories. A gallery called Breaking the Silence examines five genocides recognized by Canada; the Holodomor (Ukrainian famine), Rwanda, Srebrenica, the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. The visitor’s journey ends at the Garden of Contemplation, inspired by the Giant’s Causeway on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland. Interlocking hexagonal-shaped basalt rock columns are arranged to form nine spaces among a number of reflecting pools.

The museum opened to the public Saturday, Sept. 21 with a free open air concert with performers including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bruce Cockburn and Ashley MacIsaac.

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