In conversation: Gail Asper

On overcoming indifference, why it isn’t a museum of genocide, and Winnipeg’s windfall



On overcoming indifference, why it isn’t a museum of genocide, and Winnipeg’s windfall

Photographs by Marianne Helm

Canada’s Newest national institution, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, isn’t scheduled to open until 2013, but it’s already a subject of controversy. Over the last decade, Gail Asper has shepherded the project from a far-fetched dream to an almost reality.

Q: Your late father Izzy Asper was the driving force behind the Human Rights Museum. What was his initial vision?

A: His vision stemmed from his own background, as the child of immigrants who came to this country seeking freedom. From the idea that this is a great country, but one, he was concerned, that is pretty complacent. Canadians are indifferent to how their rights have evolved. People like me, who didn’t understand that women weren’t always persons, or that Aboriginals couldn’t vote until the 1960s. He wanted people to understand how this country came to be the tolerant country that it is now, and more importantly, to understand that if you are not vigilant with human rights, they can be lost.

Q: Since you took over the project after his passing in 2003, has that vision changed?

A: No, not at all. The vision that was first presented to the world back in 2000 is the same vision that was adopted by three different prime ministers, two premiers, two mayors and 6,000 donors. The whole goal was, and is, to inspire visitors to take personal responsibility for the advancement of human rights here in Canada and around the world.

Q: There has been controversy about some of the plans for the museum. Ukrainian and German-Canadian groups have complained that the sufferings of indigenous peoples and Jews during the Second World War are getting a “disproportionate share” of exhibit space. Has the backlash surprised you?

A: Nothing that is being said now is any different from the concerns and hopes that were being expressed even before the museum existed. We have worked with all sorts of groups. The idea wasn’t that we were going to impose a human rights museum on Canada. The idea was that we were going to listen to what Canadians wanted and work with them to deliver something that everyone could embrace. The inclusion of an exhibit on the Holodomor [the Stalin-induced famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s] was always part of the plan. That is still the plan. But there is a tiny minority that have taken a more acrimonious position on this. And that’s been disappointing.

Q: The Ukrainian-Canadian Civil Liberties Association has charged that one horror—the Holocaust—is being “elevated” above all others at the museum. What’s your response?

A: This is not a museum of genocide. The purpose is to explain what human rights are and how they can be lost. There is no better example of this than the Holocaust. A country like Germany, that was so cultured and educated, and had a democratic government—don’t forget, Hitler was elected—was still able to descend into genocide because people were not vigilant. All the experts agree that no human rights museum could ever be established without a full examination of the Holocaust. It was fundamental to our notion of human rights today, the catalyst for the world coming together to say “never again,” precipitating the anti-genocide conventions and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Holocaust really shows how good people can be convinced to do bad things.

Q: Do you think that anti-Semitism is playing a part in this?

A: I haven’t come face to face with the group that is saying this, and I wouldn’t want to accuse anyone of anti-Semitism.

Q: Now politicians are getting involved, with several Liberals, and Joy Smith, the Winnipeg MP who was your champion in the Tory caucus, calling on the museum to rethink its plans. Doesn’t this open the door to all sorts of complaints? Is there a danger of this becoming a museum of human wrongs?

A: No. This has really been the only group out of the dozens and dozens who were approached for their support who have had any problems. The museum has been incredibly consultative and respectful of people’s desires. If you’re going to make people mad, why bother doing this?

Q: It’s not a traditional museum—it’s meant to provoke and inspire and even upset people. Is there content in this museum that you are going to find personally challenging?

A: I have no doubt that there will be certain slants and presentations that I won’t agree with. That’s exactly what we want this museum to be. But the expectation is that whatever is in this museum has to be truly well-researched and balanced. The architect, Antoine Predock, has built in an outdoor amphitheatre, and the expectation is that’s where people will be protesting from the moment the doors are opened. I’m open to that. We’ve got free speech here.

Q: Your job now as the campaign chair is to enlist private sector support for the project. How has that been going?

A: The museum is a Crown corporation, but because of our genesis, and the fact that this will be the first national museum outside of Ottawa, our funding structure is very different. The federal government is providing less than a third of the capital cost. The majority of the costs, $150 million, will come from the private sector. We’re closing in on $130 million, and we’ve got 6,000 donors, from grassroots fundraising to multi-million-dollar donors. We’ve been through a tough recession and it could have been an opportunity for people to renege on their gifts, but thank heavens, we’ve had virtually no loss.

Q: There are some concerns about the museum’s ability to pay millions in property tax to Winnipeg each year. Ottawa is providing $21.7 million annually in operating expenses, but said it won’t pay more. Who’ll cover the gap?

A: Prime Minister Harper broke with decades of precedent to develop a national museum in Winnipeg and took on the operating costs—without which this museum would not exist. Museum management is in positive discussions with the city and the province for additional funding. They know they are getting a windfall here—a great project that’s going to provide a lot of tourism and employment and taxes for a small investment.

Q: You mentioned tourism. Do you think it will draw people to Winnipeg for a weekend?

A: I totally do. The conservative estimate is that this will draw close to 250,000 people a year from outside Winnipeg. We hired the finest museum planners to do a very thorough feasibility study. They came back and said this can be a very popular and important attraction for people around the world. There’s the cultural tourists—a growing demographic—who are thirsty for knowledge and want something that is spiritually challenging. The other component is architecture. We were told unequivocally that an architecturally significant building will attract people. People wonder why there’s a “Tower of Hope.” We were told that it would drive visitors. I’ll never forget the report saying “people may not give a hoot about human rights, but they love to go up towers.” With the right marketing, I believe we have an unassailable tourism opportunity here.

Q: The Aspers, through your family foundation, have given $20 million, making you the largest single donors. But your family has gone through a reversal of fortune with the failure of Canwest Communications. Has that had any effect on the foundation’s commitments?

A: Not at all. My dad was very smart when it came to running his business and managing his assets. As Canwest’s fortunes rose, he put money into this foundation. Our $20 million is virtually paid.

Q: You’re still in fundraising mode. What’s your best succinct pitch?

A: I think that Canadians should be grateful for all this country has given them, and for all those who have come before them and put their passion and, sometimes, lives on the line to fight for the rights we all enjoy. This is a celebration of who we are. My dad was always afraid that Canadians reach for the middle, that we aim for mediocrity. He said that this museum has to reach for the stars or it’s not worth doing. In order to do that we need the funds to achieve the depth and the excitement of the planned exhibits. We can’t do that without the support of people from coast to coast. This is Canada’s museum.


In conversation: Gail Asper

  1. In a publicly funded national institution no community's suffering should be elevated above all others. That's what we've always said and, no surprise, that is what most Canadians think, as a Nanos survey just confirmed, with 60.3% against giving any genocide preferential treatment. (Go to the Media Releases section of http://www.uccla.ca for all the details).

    Gail Asper says "this is Canada's museum." Quite right. It's ours, not hers. So who's the minority now?

  2. This Museum for Human Rights is yet a another example of the Asper spawn implementing their father's tried and true approach to squeezing money out of politicians. i.e. say/do whatever it takes to get the money (tell people it's a "Human Rights" museum) then do what you want (build a Holocaust museum). Some people don't enjoy being lied to.

    • Her brother really did it with the Winnipeg football stadium, too.

  3. Interesting that Ms Asper admits that the vision for this museum has not changed since her father conceived of the idea. Back then, the Holocaust was to be front and centre. Had this museum been privately funded, that would have been a legitimate way to go. Now that it is a publicly funded museum, Ms Asper should take the blinders off and make it more inclusive.

  4. A NANOS random telephone survey of 1,216 Canadians conducted from 12 March to 15 March 2011 on exhibits in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights found that an aggregate total of 60.3% wanted “one exhibit which covers all genocides equally.” The margin of accuracy for a sample of 1,216 Canadians is plus/minus 2.8%, 19 times out of 20. That sounds like a lot more than Asper's claim that only "a tiny minority" doesn't want any one group's tragedy exclusively elevated over others.

  5. The whole thing is very wrong. False pretenses. Is there any way to stop it from continuing the way it is?

  6. The board of directors for this museum needs to be held to account to ensure the suffering of one community is not elevated against all others….doing so is the right thing to do!

  7. the Holocaust – tragically – demonstrated the violation of every single human right as few other atrocities have – yes, the right to life and the right to food, but also the right to be free from torture and arbitrary deterntion, basic legal rights, the stripping of people's property rights, their rights to get jobs, and to circulate freely, rights to medical care and to travel; to own businesses and not to be the subject of eugenics experiments; the right to live where they wish and to marry who they wish, and live with their families.

    Every single aspect of their humanity (Jews, people with disbilities,, people of Slavic origin, roma, homosexuals etc. etc.) was stripped from them. (By the way Holocaust refers to all these people, NOT just Jews)

    • Unfortunately, although this is somewhat unclear, it seems that "the Holocaust" in the minds of some folks involved with the CMHR, means ONLY the suffering of the Jewish victims, and excludes (or marginalizes) the many millions of non-Jews (Ukrainians, Poles, homosexuals, Catholics, Roma, Soviet POWs, other Russians, Germans, Italians, and others) enslaved or slaughtered by the Nazis. If they used the term "Shoah" (which is particular to the Jewish experience) that would introduce clarity into this discussion. Instead they obfuscate. Regardless, UCCLA's position remains the same: all 12 of the CMHR's 12 galleries should be thematic, comparative and inclusive (and that, in a Genocides Gallery, includes the Shoah-Holocaust). That's fair.

      • Your comment reinforces the need to have the Holocaust more properly understood, if only to ensure that it be accurately remembered as an all-encompassing genocide with myriad targets (anyone who wasn't their ideal). Where better to learn this than in a museum? How better to study the fragility of human rights than by exploring in depth the most emblematic example of how even well-meaning people can be led down an evil path?

  8. I wonder if this musem will highlight the core reason for abuse of human rights? In all cases the victims could not fight back, they could be marched off, collected, like so many sheep. These genocides were all preceded by gun control laws that disarmed the victims. This has already happened in Canada, when the British feigned a lack of barrack space as an excuse to billet soldiers with citizens. The ruse was to find out who had guns, in an event known as the Acadian Expulsion.

  9. Perhaps Ms. Apser should take a look at how many Members of Parliament, including Winnipeg MP Joy Smith and Edmonton and are MPs Laurie Hawn, Tim Uppal and Leon Benoit and at least 30 Liberal MPs who are onside with the "tiny minority that have taken a more acrimonious position on this" by visiting http://www.ucc.ca/category/canadian-museum-for-hu

    This much political support to re-think the museum's plans could hardly be called a "tiny minority". Furthermore, ignoring this many people is not an example of a consultative process that is respectful of people's desires for this museum.

  10. No money for the Colisée, but money for the Holocaust….in Winnipeg!

  11. "There is no better example of this than the Holocaust"

    There are MANY better examples of this then the Holocaust. Take any one of the examples from the Old Testament where the sons of Israel completely wipe entire cities and peoples off the face of the earth. Want something more recent? Lets go with the American Slave trade. Even more recent? Rwanda.

    I find it very interesting that Gail is still trying to say that 250K people will physically visit Winnipeg when their own released information shows that the majority of those 250K visits will be to the website.

  12. Dean K wrote, " find it very interesting that Gail is still trying to say that 250K people will physically visit Winnipeg when their own released information shows that the majority of those 250K visits will be to the website."

    Honestly, I think there must be some confusion here. There's no way a project with this high of profile will only get 250K visits to its website. Maybe in the first month, but over the course of a year, it's bound to be much, much higher. I suspect they will get a lot of physical visits inititally, but visits will trail off once the bloom is off the rose.

  13. Winnipegger wrote "I suspect they will get a lot of physical visits inititally, but visits will trail off once the bloom is off the rose. "

    agreed. initially many.. but not anywhere close to 250K unless you count the kids who are sponsored to go.

    the civilization and war museums together only pull about 250K per year. And that is two national museums in a densely populated area.

  14. "The architect, Antoine Predock, has built in an outdoor amphitheatre, and the expectation is that's where people will be protesting from the moment the doors are opened. I'm open to that. We've got free speech here."

    So Ms. Asper is already certain there will be protests regarding the content of the museum. Who is being acrimonious now? Is this a way to build bridges and close the gap of discontent? Is this what leaders do? No wonder executives are resigning from this project.

  15. If you're unhappy with the direction that the museum is going, write to them and say so since you are paying for it through your tax dollars.

    And if you have made a donation, write to them and demand your money back, saying you will consider donating again if they listen to the will of Canadians and not the whims of any one particular cultural group or wealthy family.

    The museum orgainers do not report to the PM or the Heritage Minister. They do care deeply, though, about money.

  16. It's time for the CMHR to pay its tax bill to the City of Winnipeg, again. Once again, they are trying to get away without paying for it.

    Read all about it in this excellent article that quotes this MacLean's article to help you read between the lines and help you get to more of the truth than what Gail Asper is willing to reveail.

  17. With its glib references to "catalyst for change" and "empowering change," I can see why the Globe and Mail letters editor placed the headline "For change" right above Angela J. Cassie's letter (25 March 2011). I thought for a moment the director of communications and public engagement for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights might even employ the slogan made famous during Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and declare the Winnipeg museum's ultimate purpose the broad promotion of "change we can believe in." Which brings me to my main concerns with this new institution.

    Will the museum be used a tool for social engineering? Will it, for example, promote urbane liberal values that conflict with traditional or conservative or religious values? Will some of the material or exhibits cross the line into guilt-mongering? Will
    important historical events be marginalized or entirely neglected, like the many millions who died in the Belgian Congo as a
    result of the ivory and rubber trade between 1880 and 1920? Will the museum be exploited for partisan political gain? Will it, in fact, turn out to be more of a divider than a uniter? Will it generally benefit Canadians relative to the cost of maintaining it, or will it become a white elephant, Manitoba's Mirabel Airport?

  18. A museum describing foreign genocides instills guilt in Canadians whose families originated from those countries, and induces visitors to blame ethnic groups for the sins of their forefathers.

    An Armenian genocide exhibit blames the Turkish army and people, a Cambodian exhibit blames Pol Pot and Cambodians, a Nanking exhibit blames the Japanese Army, a Ukrainian exhibit blames the Soviet Army and people, and a Holocaust exhibit blames the German leaders and people.

    Feeling guilt for genocidal actions of their ethnic forefathers can affect the psychological well being of Canadians from Turkey, Cambodia, Japan, the Soviet Union, and Germany.

    Museum planners should cancel the foreign genocide exhibits and instead show how refugees from 20th Century war-torn countries helped build Canada.

  19. With Gail Asper kvetching about a chimerical "small minority" that is, according to her, putting sticks in the spokes of her grand vision, there must surely be, in counterpoint, a "huge majority" that supports and cheers said vision. Ms Asper accusingly points fingers at that "minority"; but her "big majority" is sure keeping mighty silent. Why is that?

  20. Gail Asper is a member of a tiny minority that has a disproportionate amount of wealth and power. Her ethnocentrism is driving a wedge between her perpetually outraged group and the vast majority of descent Canadians who just wish to be left alone, earn a living and raise a family in a descent neighbourhood. I am tired of her cult of death she and her group is pushing on the generations of the future. What a waste of time, resources and energy.

  21. Having faith is divine. Being stuck in faith isn't. This is the effect evolution has on the Bible. Evolution can be shown to have the same effect on itself proving that man is divine. In this context, focus on symbolism is what the museum stands for, not on the Holocaust.

  22. Gail Asper has as much logic as a can of Spam.

  23. If the Aspers had wanted a holocaust museum, why not call it that?

    However, if this is a Canadian museum of human rights, let's have it portray the issues that many Canadian families faced in their family's country of origin. Many present Canadians immigrated to Canada precisely because their human rights were an issue elsewhere. Let's learn more about it!

    Regardless of who first got the ball rolling, this museum is a Canadian institution and should represent, and be of interest to, all Canadians.

Sign in to comment.