September 19, 2014 / 6:49 PM / 3 years ago

Canada human rights museum stirs controversy as doors open

WINNIPEG Manitoba (Reuters) - Canada’s museum showcasing human rights opened in the Prairie city of Winnipeg on Friday, dogged by controversy that began long before the first visitor arrived.

Fireworks burst over the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba in this picture provided by CMHR-MCDP August 20, 2014. REUTERS/Aaron Cohen/CMHR-MCDP/Handout via Reuters

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a tower of glass and tyndall stone, riled cultural groups who question its content. This week, Canadians of Ukrainian and other backgrounds urged a boycott due to “the lack of a meaningful portrayal” of Canada’s internment of so-called “enemy aliens” during the First World War.

“This is supposed to be a Canadian museum of human rights and really the internment should be front and center,” said Marsha Skrypuch, whose grandfather was interned for about a year a century ago.

Skrypuch said she has no direct knowledge of the museum’s contents, but does not plan to visit it and add to any impression that it is inclusive.

“Why would I go now? I would be used.”

Musical group A Tribe Called Red pulled out of opening programs over concerns about how the museum presented indigenous issues.

“I don’t think you could possibly build a human rights museum without there being controversy,” said Gail Asper, a museum board member who championed its fund-raising drive. “What we want is for people to come in, check out the whole museum, see how everything fits together, and then, if they’ve got concerns, fair enough.”

The museum was envisioned by her father, Israel “Izzy” Asper, who founded Winnipeg-based Canwest Global. Canwest became one of Canada’s biggest media companies before later sliding into bankruptcy.

Asper, long interested in human rights, decided in 2000 to build the museum in his hometown when he learned that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was not displayed in the country.

Asper died of a heart attack three years later.

“We were really wondering if we should be proceeding with this because we had lost our leader,” recalled Gail Asper. “For him, the real failure would have been to not try.”

Before he died, Izzy Asper convinced Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien to make an initial capital contribution of C$30 million ($27.4 million) and promise another C$70 million later. Private donors raised C$147 million.

Museum supporters later convinced the next prime minister, Paul Martin, to honor Chretien’s pledge, and his successor, Stephen Harper, to kick in operational funding.

That support has drawn suspicions of political interference in the content, which Gail Asper said are unfounded.

While there are other human rights museums, Canada’s is billed as the only one that explores human rights as a concept, instead of commemorating a specific event or movement.

It uses digital media to feature ideas and stories, rather than artifacts, and showcases Canada’s Charter. Content includes Canada’s treatment of aboriginals, the Holocaust, and eight other galleries.

American architect Antoine Predock’s design, evoking a glass cloud, has divided opinion. The museum’s ballooning costs also made it a target, as the C$351 million capital cost far overshot the original C$200 million estimate.

Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Marguerita Choy

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