National Post | 19Apr2011 | Gail Asper

A museum that Canadians support

As the National Post reported earlier this month, Michael Marrus, professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at the University of Toronto, is skeptical of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights being built in Winnipeg. "This is supposed to be a human rights museum and it has started off by being highly divisive," he told the National Post. "The only thing they can do is to start all over. I am despairing of the whole thing."

It is most unfortunate that Mr. Marrus would take this position. The very fact that he believes the museum "started off by being highly divisive" shows that he is unaware of how long this project has been in development, and the kind of grassroots support it always had.

The museum was first conceived over 11 years ago and was announced publicly on April 17, 2003, by my father, the late Israel Asper, who invested $22-million of his own money to support its development. Prior to that time, detailed presentations had been made to several ethnic and human-rights groups to ensure that they understood the project and endorsed it. After the announcement of the museum, these groups wrote enthusiastically to Jean Chrétien to express their full support for the project. This includes many aboriginal groups whose human rights stories are still being told and resolved, francophone organizations, ethnic groups whose communities had faced discrimination in Canada, as well as groups representing the disabled, women, gays and lesbians, labour and many more.

Over the past eight years, the Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights have made over 1,500 presentations to individuals, groups and corporations to explain the museum and raise funds to build it.

The museum has been brilliantly designed by world-renowned museum developer Ralph Appelbaum & Associates, creators of dozens of awardwinning museums around the world. Although this is a national federal museum, which would normally receive all of its funding from the federal government, Ottawa is contributing less than a third of the capital costs of $310-million. We sought and received support for the museum from the city of Winnipeg, province of Manitoba and over 6,000 donors from around the world who have contributed $130million toward a $150-million privatesector campaign goal.

There has been virtually no acrimony among the dozens of groups who understand the museum's objectives, mostly because they are excited that something, for the first time in Canadian history, is actually being done to explore their human-rights stories. This is something which is being celebrated, and is in fact greatly appreciated, notwithstanding Mr. Marrus' comments.

There will always be one or two groups that are determined to undermine a project such as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, but they are few and far between. Of course, if we had received negative reactions from everyone with whom we spoke back in 2002, the Asper Foundation would have proceeded to simply continue taking Canadian students to Washington for its nationally recognized Human Rights & Holocaust Studies Program. My father certainly had better things to do with his time and money than waste them on something no one wanted.

Canadians can be assured that this museum will open and provide a transformational journey, starting in 2013. I think that all the Canadians who have supported this museum so far should be proud of what they will be creating for future generations.

? Gail Asper is a member of the board of trustees of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

COMMENT submitted by Roman Serbyn:

Re: A museum that Canadians support (National Post 2011.04.19)

If there's one thing Gail Asper has, it's chutzpah. It takes audacity to ignore the gist of professor Marrus's criticism and dismiss his opinion as uninformed.

In his letter to the Globe and Mail (24Mar2011) and later in the National Post interview (06Apr2011), the world-renowned expert on the Holocaust and human rights explained that there is no evidence for the contention of Gail Asper and the museum’s planners that the Holocaust was the moving force behind the modern human rights movement. “I think the prominence given to the Holocaust, however well meaning, is historically incorrect," wrote professor Marrus and urged the museum to “focus on human rights, not wrongs”.

In practical terms this means, changing the contents in the sixth gallery, the anchor of the museum, the lens through which the rest of the museum will be examined, from an exhibit on the Holocaust, to one on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar documents. After all, the organizers claim that this is supposed to be an Ideas museum, not and institution for memorializing genocides, and the Holocaust was a genocide.

Ms. Asper has no argument against professor Marrus’s sound logic, so she calls his position “unfortunate” and his remarks a result of the fact that he is “unaware” of the project’s development and its “grassroots support”. It is hard to believe that professor Marrus is oblivious to a project so close to his professional interests. As for the claimed “grassroots support” - whether it exists or not - it gives Ms Asper no right to accuse “one or two groups [insinuating the Ukrainian Canadian Congress] that are determined to undermine a project such as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights”. Such an affirmation is libelous because the UCC, as a representative body of an ethnic community  has every right to express its concerns about the organization of the contents in a national, government-financed institution. To say that in exercising this right, the UCC is “determined to undermine” the CMHR is libelous. Ms. Asper should retract her statement and publicly apologize.