Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is a Canadian Crown Corporation and national museum located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, adjacent to The Forks. The purpose of the museum is to "explore the subject of human rights with a special but not exclusive reference to Canada, to enhance the public's understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue."[4] It held its opening ceremonies on 19 September 2014.[5]

Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Musée canadien pour les droits de la personne
Established13 March 2008 (2008-03-13)
LocationWinnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, at the historic Forks
FounderAsper Foundation
DirectorPres. & CEO --
Dr. John Young[1][2][3]
OwnerCrown Corporation Government of Canada[4]

Established in 2008 through the enactment of Bill C-42, an amendment of the Canadian Museums Act,[6] the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the first new national museum created in Canada since 1967, and it is the first new national museum ever to be located outside the National Capital Region.[7]


On 17 April 2003, the 21st anniversary of the signing of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the establishment of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was announced as a joint partnership of the Asper Foundation, the Government of Canada, the Province of Manitoba, the City of Winnipeg and The Forks North Portage Partnership.[8] The Asper Foundation donated $20 million.

Israel Harold Asper, OC OM QC, known as Izzy Asper, is credited with the idea and vision to establish the CMHR. He was a Canadian lawyer, politician, and founder of the now-defunct media conglomerate Canwest Global Communications.[9][10] Asper hoped it would become a place where students from across Canada could come to learn about human rights. He also saw it as an opportunity to revitalize downtown Winnipeg and increase tourism to the city, as well as to raise understanding and awareness of human rights, promote respect for others, and encourage reflection, dialogue, and action. After Izzy's death in 2003, his daughter Gail Asper spearheaded the project.[5]

On 20 April 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the Government of Canada's intention to make the CMHR into a national museum. On 13 March 2008, Bill C-42, an Act amending the Museums Act and making consequential amendments to other Acts, received Royal Assent in Parliament, with support from all political parties, creating the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as a national museum.[11] By the middle of 2008, a government-funded opinion research project had been completed by the TNS/The Antima Group. The ensuing report[12]—based primarily on focus group participants—listed the following: which the CMHR might cover topics (not in order of preference); key milestones in human rights achievements, both in Canada and throughout the word; current debates about human rights; and events where Canada showed a betrayal or a commitment to human rights.

19 December 2008 marked the groundbreaking ceremony at the site of the CMHR,[13] and official construction on the site began in April 2009. Construction was initially expected to be completed in 2012.[14] The chair of the board resigned before his term was up, and a new interim chair was appointed.[15][16] The base building has been substantially complete since the end of 2012, and the Museum's inauguration took place in 2014.[17][18]

The museum's official opening on 19 September 2014, was protested by several activist groups, who expressed the view that their own human rights histories had been inaccurately depicted or excluded from the museum.[5] The First Nations musical group A Tribe Called Red, who had been scheduled to perform at the opening ceremony, pulled out in protest against the museum's coverage of First Nations issues.[19]


Funding for the capital costs of the CMHR is coming from three jurisdictions of government, the federal Crown, the provincial Crown, and the City of Winnipeg, as well as private donations. The total budget for the building of the exterior of the CMHR and its contents was $310 million as of February 2011. At the time of its opening in September 2014, the cost of the museum was approximately $351 million.[20]

To date, the Government of Canada has allocated $100 million, the Government of Manitoba has donated $40 million, and the City of Winnipeg has donated $20 million.[21] The Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, led by Gail Asper, have raised more than $130 million in private donations from across Canada toward a final goal of $150 million.[22] These private sector pledges include $4.5 million from provincial crown corporations in Manitoba and $5 million from the government of Ontario.[23] The Canadian Museum for Human Rights has requested an additional $35 million in capital funding from the federal government to cover shortfalls. In April 2011, the CMHR received an additional $3.6 million from the City of Winnipeg, which was taken from a federal grant to the city in lieu of taxes for the museum.[24]

The CMHR's operating budget is provided by the government of Canada, as the CMHR is a national museum. The estimated operating costs to the federal government are $22 million annually. In December 2011, the CMHR announced that due to rising costs for the interior exhibits of the museum, the total construction cost had increased by an additional $41 million to a new total of $351 million.[25] In July 2012, the federal and provincial governments agreed to further enhance the capital funding to the CMHR by up to $70 million, through a combination of a federal loan and a provincial loan guarantee. This newest funding was essential for the completion of the interior exhibits so that the museum could officially open in 2014, already two years behind schedule.[26]


In 2003, the Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights launched an international architectural competition for the design of the CMHR. 100 submissions from 21 countries worldwide were submitted.[27] The judging panel chose the design submitted by Antoine Predock and Chris Beccone, architects from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

His vision for the CMHR is a journey, beginning with a descent into the earth where visitors enter the CMHR through the "roots" of the museum. Visitors are led through the Great Hall, then a series of vast spaces and ramps, before culminating in the Tower of Hope, a tall spire protruding from the CMHR that provides visitors with views of downtown Winnipeg.[28] He has been quoted as saying: "I'm often asked what my favorite, my most important building is," he said. "I'm going on record right now," he proclaimed. 'This is it.'"[29]

Antoine Predock's inspiration for the CMHR came from the natural scenery and open spaces in Canada, including trees, ice, northern lights, First Nations peoples in Canada, and the rootedness of human rights action. He describes the CMHR in the following way:

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is rooted in humanity, making visible in the architecture the fundamental commonality of humankind-a symbolic apparition of ice, clouds and stone set in a field of sweet grass. Carved into the earth and dissolving into the sky on the Winnipeg horizon, the abstract ephemeral wings of a white dove embrace a mythic stone mountain of 450 million year old Tyndall limestone in the creation of a unifying and timeless landmark for all nations and cultures of the world.[30]

The base building has been substantially complete since the end of 2012. Throughout the foundation work of the CMHR, medicine bags created by elders at Thunderbird House, in Winnipeg, were inserted into the holes made for piles and caissons to show respect for Mother Earth. The CMHR website had two webcams available for the public to watch the construction as it progressed.

For the construction of the Hall of Hope full of illuminated alabaster ramps, more than 3.500m² and 15.000 tiles of alabaster were used, making it the biggest project ever done with alabaster.[31][32]

On 3 July 2010, Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, unveiled the building's cornerstone.[33][34] The stone bears the Queen's royal cypher and has embedded in it a piece of stone from the ruins of St. Mary's Priory,[35] at Runnymede, England, where it is believed the Magna Carta was approved in 1215 by King John.[36]

At the time of its opening in September 2014 there were ten permanent galleries:[37]

  1. What are human rights?
  2. Indigenous perspectives.
    This includes a "circular movie about First Nations concepts of rights and responsibilities to each other and the land."[38] Curator Lee-Ann Martin described contemporary installation artist Rebecca Belmore's "Trace",[37] a 2-1/2-storey "ceramic blanket" commissioned by the CMHR.[39] This blanket is part of a series by Winnipeg-based Anishinaabe artist Belmore that "expose the traumatic history and ongoing violence against Aboriginal people."[39]
  3. Canadian journeys.
    This includes "prominent exhibits" on residential schools, "missing and murdered aboriginal women," "forced relocation of Inuit."[40] as well as Japanese during World War II, disabilities from Ryerson University, Chinese head tax, the Underground Railroad, Komagata Maru and the Winnipeg General Strike.[38]
  4. Protecting rights in Canada
  5. Examining the Holocaust and other genocides.
    The gallery on genocide includes the five genocides recognized by Canada: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian ethnic cleansing.[38]
  6. Turning points for humanity
  7. Breaking the silence
  8. Actions count
  9. Rights today
  10. Inspiring change

The process

The CMHR worked with exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA) from New York to develop the inaugural exhibits of the museum. RAA indicated that the galleries throughout the CMHR would deal with various themes including the Canadian human rights journey, Aboriginal concepts of human rights, the Holocaust, and current human rights issues. The CMHR's team of researchers working with RAA to develop the inaugural exhibits.

As part of the content development process, the CMHR did a cross-country tour called "Help Write the Story of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights". From May 2009 to February 2010, CMHR researchers visited 19 cities and talked to thousands of people about their human rights experiences and what they wanted to see in the museum. This consultation process was led by Lord Cultural Resources, based in Toronto. On 5 March 2013 a story produced by CBC TV (Manitoba) mentioned a document, "Gallery Profiles" (dated 12 September 2012), that confirms some the CMHR's contents. The Museum's largest gallery is dedicated to Canadian content, while a thematic approach is taken throughout all of its galleries.

Aboriginal issues

Aboriginal issues are addressed in each gallery, but are prominent in the " Canadian Journeys Gallery" and the "Indigenous Perspectives Gallery."[40]


Several agreements have been reached by the CMHR and various educational institutions and government agencies, to enhance the quality and depth of information provided by the museum, as well as to broaden the educational opportunities for the museum. This is a tentative and evolving list of organizations that have partnered with the museum:


The Forks: Aboriginal sacred site

From 2008 to 2012, Quaternary Consultants' senior archaeologist Sid Kroker and Stantec Consulting's senior archaeologist David McLeod conducted archaeological excavations in two stages on the future building site of the CMHR museum, recovering "more than 400,000 artifacts dating as far back as 1100 A.D."[43] The museum has come under criticism, including that the site selected is one of the richest sites in Manitoba for aboriginal artifacts. Retired Manitoba archaeologist Leigh Syms stated that the excavation done prior to construction did not go far enough. A spokesperson for the museum pointed out that the museum had consulted with native leaders prior to excavation. In addition, the museum continued to evaluate the site during construction. The area where the museum is built has been an area of increased development over the past few years, including a skate park, a hotel, and a parkade. All these are south of what is believed to be a part of an Aboriginal graveyard.[44]

The CMHR has responded to the criticisms put forward by Leigh Syms, arguing that they have followed all necessary guidelines prior to and during the archaeological digs and excavations and have consulted and continue to consult Aboriginal Elders and others within the Aboriginal community about the project as it moves forward.[45]

There have been suggestions that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and much of the Forks in general, is located on an Aboriginal burial ground. An impact assessment and management plan prepared for the Forks Renewal Corporation prior to the beginning of construction of the Forks Market in 1988 outlines the concerns about burial grounds expressed by the archaeologists.[46] Several archaeological digs in the area done between 1989 and 1991, as well as the archaeological digs completed by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in 2008 and 2009, did not find any human remains.[47] These digs show that while the site was used for a variety of land uses, it has never been a burial ground. However, only 3% of the land the museum is on has been examined archaeologically, so we cannot say what lies beneath 97% of the museum. In the area, prior to 1923 several Aboriginal graves had been uncovered by accident while digging for foundations.

The Forks is located in the flood plain of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Before the floodway was built in 1968, the location of the Forks was prone to flooding when accumulated winter snow rapidly melted in the spring. One of the largest of these floods, in 1826, destroyed the original Fort Garry. The Red River rose three metres (over nine feet) in one day. It created a lake that remained for months and washed away nearly every building in the settlement.[48] Due to recurring flooding, the Forks site was used as a transitional camp.[49]

Over 50 separate projects involving excavation have been undertaken at the Forks since 1950, enabling researchers to provide an accurate reflection of the various uses of the Forks over the past 6000 years.[50] Despite the concerns stated above, none of these projects indicate that the Forks site was ever used as a burial ground.

Proposed museum content

Starting in December 2010, controversy erupted over the plans for two permanent gallery spaces: for the Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and for the injustices experienced by the Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Organizations like the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC),[51] Canadians for Genocide Education, the German-Canadian Congress,[52] the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA) and thousands of other Canadians have been protesting this perceived elevation of the suffering of one or two communities above all others. The experiences and issues of these other groups are addressed thematically in the remaining galleries. With regard to atrocities, other advocacy groups have also chimed in to protest a perceived over-emphasis on the Holocaust.[53][54]

Angela Cassie, the museum's director of communications, responded to recent criticism by pointing out that there was a misconception about there being only two permanent zones. "There will in fact be 12 permanent zones, and the Holodomor will have a permanent display in the 'Mass Atrocity' zone,[55] immediately adjacent to the Holocaust zone," Cassie said. "This zone will feature detailed information on the Holodomor and many other mass atrocities that have taken place worldwide and will provide educational opportunities for visitors to learn more about these events."[56]

According to the Canadian Jewish Congress CEO Bernie Farber, the events of the Holocaust require a special focus, because they redefined the limits of "human depravity" and challenged the foundation of our civilization. "The Holocaust was also the foundation for our modern human rights legislation,[57] and it makes perfect sense that the Holocaust should have a permanent place in the museum. It also makes sense that the plight of Canada’s First Nations should also have a prominent place in the museum. What makes no sense is pitting one group of Canadians against another," said Farber.[56] As for the Holocaust zone, Cassie has stated that this gallery is anticipated to include the sufferings of "the Roma, persons with physical and mental disabilities, gay men, lesbians … among other communities."[58]

In a "reply to the editor" of the National Post, Stuart Murray, president and CEO of the museum, gave his statement on the inclusivity of the museum's planned galleries, following various protests that appeared in media after December 2010.[59] A month later, Murray's travel expenses at the cost of taxpayers, purportedly for meetings related to museum business, also came under scrutiny.[60] In 2013, Clint Curle, former curator of the Holocaust gallery and current head of stakeholder relations at the CMHR, was interviewed by Catherine Chatterley about the Holocaust gallery, how the CMHR is defining the Holocaust, and the general content of the museum.[61]

Inclusion of the Holodomor and other atrocities

Lubomyr Luciuk, speaking for the UCCLA, suggested that the museum's 12 thematic galleries could cover larger issues such as Canadian internment operations, including unwarranted detention of the following: Ukrainians and others during World War I;[62] Germans, Italians and Japanese during World War II; and some Québécois in the 1970 October Crisis. Another topic, genocides, could be treated as a whole, whether the atrocities occurred in Europe, Africa or Asia, and could include the politically motivated crimes of communism as well as fascism.[58]

In December 2010, the UCCLA also started a postcard campaign to try to persuade Heritage Minister James Moore to convene a new advisory committee, with the objective of reevaluating the proposed content of the CMHR.[63] Following the postcard campaign, Luciuk stated that "as a publicly funded institution, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights should not elevate the suffering of any community above all others."[64] One of the earlier postcards distributed by the UCCLA borrowed the image of a pig, representing Joseph Stalin in George Orwell's allegorical novel "Animal Farm", to portray those in favor of a separate gallery devoted to the Holocaust.

This imagery was clearly ill-received by some members of the Canadian Jewish community, given its implication that elevating their suffering during the Holocaust above all other genocides was equivalent to Stalinist operatives trying to dominate the farms of Ukraine.[65] University of Manitoba's director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, Catherine Chatterley, criticized the postcard campaign, stating that it demonstrated "the clear need for this museum, its permanent Holocaust gallery, and for the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism."[54]

Responding to public concerns, Member of Parliament James Bezan released a statement imploring the CMHR Board of Trustees to apportion to the Holodomor "a unique, autonomous and prominent place in the CMHR" and requested that the "CMHR Board [of Trustees] contain respected members of the Ukrainian community with knowledge of the Holodomor and other human rights violations."[66] A petition outlining the grievances of the UCC has been prepared for submission to parliament, entitled "Petition for equity and fairness at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights."[67]

The UCC also revealed that the tendering process undertaken by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has no intention of including permanent or prominent displays of the Holodomor or of Canada’s First National Internment Operations, providing further evidence that the Museum will proceed on the basis of the discredited Content Advisory Committee Report.[68] In July 2012, Stuart Murray signed a memorandum of understanding with Victor Didenko, the CEO of the National Museum "Memorial to Holodomor victims", for future collaboration regarding education about the Holodomor.[69][70]

After visiting the CMHR, Luciuk provided a critical commentary, in which he stated that the building is more mausoleum than museum.[71] The Endowment Council of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund also released a public statement; its criticism said the negative impact of Canada's first national internment operations of 1914-1920 was being downplayed at the CMHR.[72] First and Second World War internment operations were not kept as historically separate entities, while the large-scale map projected in one of the galleries neglected to show the locations of receiving stations where internees were held, in Montreal, Toronto (Stanley Barracks), Niagara Falls, Sault Ste Marie and Winnipeg.

Exclusion of the Israel/Palestinian conflict

Some Palestinian-Canadians are upset that plans for the new Museum, did not include an exhibit with their story. "As the opening comes closer, I become more and more concerned that the lessons of the Palestinian experience, nobody’s going to hear it," said Rana Abdulla. "Our story is an excellent story to educate Canadians about human rights. How would anyone take that museum seriously if they don’t hear the Palestinian story?"

According to the United Nations, the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 displaced 750,000 Palestinians. Today, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reports their descendants total five million around the world. Mohamed El Rashidy, vice-president of the Canadian Arab Federation, said the new museum will have to address and reflect what Palestinians have gone through and "give them a voice." "You can be courageous when you have this kind of diversity [in Canada] because you have so much strength. We shouldn’t fear stating the inconvenient truths and facts about history."[73]

Response of the CMHR to complaints of favouritism

Several people have expressed dismay at the quarrel over the square footage allotted to any given atrocity or human rights violation. While many Ukrainians believe the aggrandizing of the Holocaust has marginalized the Holodomor and dishonoured its victims, it has been argued that there should be less haggling over which wronged group gets the most space in a museum, and more concern over the prevention of human rights abuses in the future.[74]

Also, as the museum's own Cassie has explained, the purpose of the museum is not to be a memorial for the suffering of different groups, but to be a learning experience for visitors of all ages. It is to be a "museum of ideas," not just a museum of past events. For example, the zone dedicated to the indigenous experience in Canada is "part of a broader context of introduction to human rights," Cassie said, and will form the basis for a zone exploring the wider Canadian experience of human rights, including internment of Canadians of Ukrainian and other origins during the world wars. The zone earmarked for the Holocaust sets the stage for a key zone exploring the revolutionary 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was drafted in direct response to the Nazi atrocities.[74][75]

To address the concerns of Canadian citizens about how various human rights issues would be covered in the museum, Cassie provided a more detailed explanation of the actual process for public consultation and corrected misconceptions that may have been perpetrated by the media, particularly in relation to gallery content.[76] From this statement, it was clear that the Holocaust would be in its own gallery, the Holodomor would be given a permanent place in the 'Mass Atrocity' zone, the Canadian internment operations would be featured, and the human rights abuses towards aboriginals would have a place in the 'Indigenous Rights' gallery. Cassie also explained that the Content Advisory Committee's mandate had expired in March 2010, and that its submitted recommendations constituted only part of the consultation process. The first round of public consultations that had begun in May 2009,[77] was completed in February 2010.

Concerns over how the Holodomor, as well as other Ukrainian and Ukrainian Canadian issues, would be treated at the CMHR proved to be valid, as described by the president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Paul Grod, in a 2013 speech in Winnipeg. Among other points, Grod lamented how the CMHR intends to place only a minor exhibit about the Holodomor in a secondary gallery, located adjacent to the public toilets. The toilets were eventually relocated to an adjacent corridor. Nevertheless, the depiction of the Holodomor is limited and contains historical errors (e.g., the map shows the whole of contemporary Ukraine whereas only Soviet Ukrainians experienced the genocide).

See also


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  4. Government of Canada 2008, p. 2.
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  6. Government of Canada 2008, p. 4.
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