Rights museum opening draws protests; CEO says that’s what it is supposed to do

The head of Canada’s newest national museum promised Friday that the towering building will spark debate, and aboriginal protesters proved him correct.

WINNIPEG — The head of Canada’s newest national museum promised Friday that the towering building will spark debate, and aboriginal protesters proved him correct.

Armed with a bullhorn, the few dozen protesters who were kept outside the fenced-in area tried unsuccessfully to drown out museum CEO Stuart Murray and other dignitaries at the opening of the $351-million Canadian Museum For Human Rights. They called for government action on missing and murdered aboriginal women, living conditions on reserves and other issues.

They also accused the museum of downplaying Canada’s mistreatment of First Nations.

“This museum will ignite passion and protest. There can be no other way,” Murray told the crowd.

“The Canadian Museum For Human Rights will open doors to conversations we haven’t had before. Not all of these conversations will be easy.”

The museum has already come under fire by some aboriginal leaders for not using the term “genocide” to describe past Canadian policies toward First Nations. The aboriginal music group A Tribe Called Red pulled out of a planned performance at the museum this weekend in protest.

But other aboriginal leaders say the museum will educate Canadians about how indigenous people have been treated throughout the country’s history.

“We will have an opportunity to learn that treaty rights are human rights, that treaties are a solution,” Wilton Littlechild, a Cree lawyer and member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told the crowd.

Crews have been toiling around the clock to finish the exhibits inside the museum — the brainchild of the late media mogul Izzy Asper — which looked very much like a construction zone during a media preview tour earlier in the week.

Some of the video screens that showed Dr. Henry Morgentaler and his supporters fighting for abortion rights were not working. Booths that sat underneath a giant media panel on darker moments in Canadian history were empty. A sign explaining the layout of a concentration camp was leaning on the floor.

The museum is to open to the general public in one week, but even then some exhibits might still need “final touches,” according to museum spokeswoman Angela Cassie.

Despite the scramble, museum officials and local politicians have been clearly pleased about the stone, steel and glass building, which is only the second national museum outside the Ottawa region.

Designed by architect Antoine Predock, it is designed to bring visitors from the earthy darkness of the stone, subterranean lower levels to progressively lighter and more airy upper floors, finishing in the glass Tower of Hope, which stands higher than the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.

Inside, the museum seems a cross between a sombre educational institution and a high-tech playground. Some video screens take up entire walls. Images and words appear and disappear at different intervals and people on the screen seem to walk toward you as they recount key moments in history. Illuminated alabaster walkways take visitors from one gallery to the next.

In some galleries, silence and reflection are clearly the intent. The Holocaust gallery — the only section dedicated to a specific event — is dimly lit and most displays are stark black and white.

Achieving a balance between serious information and engaging technology, while trying to cover human rights developments over more than 2000 years, was a challenge.

“It was this back-and-forth about how do we tell a story, what is an impactful experience for a visitor, and how do we have that visitor engaged at the end,” said Corey Timpson, the museum’s director of exhibitions and digital media.

“We can’t have everything be read. It can’t be too heavy. Otherwise the visitor is bored.”

The museum does not shy away from controversial issues or from the checkered moments of Canada’s past. Anti-semitism within Canada is discussed, as well as aboriginal policies and residential schools. The aim is to learn rather than blame, according to Murray.

“This isn’t a place where people are going to be pointing fingers about mass atrocities or issues that have happened in the past. It’s rather from an education standpoint — what can we learn from this, why did it happen?”

The museum also houses Canadian artifacts, some of which are on loan from the Library of Canada. There is a copy of the Bill of Rights signed by former prime minister John Diefenbaker in 1960; a 1763 royal proclamation by King George III that established protocols for relationships with First Nations; and head-tax certificates paid for by Chinese immigrants around the start of the 20th century.

Gail Asper, who took over the museum project when her father Izzy died in 2003, said it is “incredibly satisfying” to see his dream become a reality. The family’s charitable foundation had been sending students to museums in the United States to learn about human rights, and the Aspers wondered why there was no similar facility in Canada.

It took more than a decade to secure the necessary land and funding. Over that time, the museum’s price tag soared from $200 million to $351 million. The federal government has put up $100 million in construction costs, while almost $150 million has come from private donations. The Manitoba government and Winnipeg municipal government have also chipped in.

“The vision from back in 2000 has been respected. It’s been improved on, it’s been expanded,” said Asper, who received a standing ovation at Friday’s opening ceremonies.

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