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Toronto Star | 06Nov2011 | Martin Knelman

Gail Asper never gave up on rights museum dream

In Winnipeg’s North End, where I grew up, we took multiculturalism and diversity for granted, even if nobody used those words at the time and the variety of backgrounds among my high school classmates rarely extended beyond white and European.

Yet, despite its colourful history, lively demographic and special flavour, it seemed to me Winnipeg was an isolated place in the middle of nowhere facing a bleak future, on its way to becoming the town history forgot.

That’s why I moved to Toronto.

Now, after years of decline, things are looking up in my old hometown. I’ll admit the homicide rate is nothing to boast about, but on both the creative and economic side, Manitoba’s capital is on a roll.

Unlike Toronto, Winnipeg has done a beautiful job of redeveloping its waterfront. Its civic leaders, unlike Toronto’s, have found creative ways of cooperating with their senior government partners. And what really boosted spirits was the miraculous return of the city’s beloved hockey team, the Jets, 15 years after the team moved to Phoenix.

But the biggest factor in Winnipeg’s revival may be the opening (likely in 2014) of Canada’s first designated national museum outside Ottawa -- the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a $310 million work in progress.

Presto! A $20 million contribution from the Asper Foundation was leveraged into a $310 million project

On a recent visit, I had a chance to tour New Mexico architect Antoine Predock’s iconic creation.

The historic location is perfect -- at the Forks, where the Red River meets the Assiniboine River. The building is still a construction site but it’s far enough along that you get a thrilling whiff of what it will be like when it’s finished. “A symbolic apparition of ice, clouds and stone” is how Predock describes the maze he designed for leading visitors through a deeply meaningful journey. It does indeed, as Izzy Asper decreed, “reach for the stars.”

Among the other participants donning boots and hard hats for the tour was the unfailingly upbeat and relentlessly determined woman who made this dream come true, overcoming obstacles that would surely have defeated anyone else.

Gail Asper has spent almost a decade as national campaign chair of the museum.

She has been working to ensure that the hugely ambitious project, which was floated by her father, media mogul Izzy Asper, shortly before his sudden death in 2003, comes to fruition.

[W.Z. To suggest that Izzy Asper, who attacked freedom of speech by ordering his journalists never to write critical articles of Israel, was a proponent of human rights is an oxymoron.]

She could hardly have given herself a more difficult task, nor could she have anticipated all the nasty surprises that would seem to block her way. But I defy anyone to spend half an hour in her company without becoming a convert to her cause. I fell under her spell the day we met in 2005.

She has so far raised a phenomenal $130 million and hopes to wrap up the capital campaign by raising another $20 million. That’s 2.5 times her original $60 million target — but as costs escalated she went out and found more money. An additional $163 million is covered by three governments.

“Gail Asper is Canada’s best fundraiser,” says Gail Dexter Lord, co-president of Lord Cultural Resources and a consultant to the new Winnipeg museum.

What’s her secret?

“She’s smart but, even better, she’s inspiring,” says Lord. “Plus she’s beautiful and bilingual, and she can sing. And as a lawyer she really understands the importance and relevance of human rights. So she can make a great case for the museum.”

It was as campaign chair for the United Way in 2002 that Asper developed her skills at getting strangers to write cheques for a good cause. She also led a successful campaign for the Manitoba Theatre Centre.

Leonard Asper tried to think of the right word to describe his older sister. “After I got through the usual suspects like ‘indomitable,’ ‘irrepressible’ and ‘stubborn,’ I came up with something else,” he says. “Gail has this unique way of making you feel both stupid and wrong for saying no. . . so you end up saying yes. And in the event that does not work, she moves on to Plan B, which is persistence to the point of being charmingly annoying.”

Eleven years ago, it was something his daughter told him that led Izzy Asper to come up with what many people dismissed as a grand folly. At the time, she was corporate secretary for CanWest, the Asper’s Winnipeg-based international media company.

The Asper Foundation, the family’s charitable organization, was funding a program to send students to Washington to learn about human rights and the Holocaust. Gail Asper and Moe Levy, executive director of the foundation, accompanied the students.

[W.Z.  The Ukrainian Canadian Congress is in possession of a letter from Moe Levy promising that the Holodomor would be given equal billing with the Holocaust.]

She told her father that it bothered her the kids were learning about U.S. history and U.S. human rights stories rather than Canadian ones. She would rather send students to Ottawa than Washington, but there was no museum in Canada that fit their needs.

“We’ll build one right here in Winnipeg,” Izzy Asper said.

“Are you nuts?” his daughter asked.

Her father was convinced it could work, and Levy helped work out plans for a museum.

Izzy Asper, whose musician parents had fled oppression in Russia, had found his legacy project -- a museum that would enhance Winnipeg’s stature while teaching Canadians and foreign visitors about human rights. It would tell the stories of how human rights had been violated in the past, and also accentuate the positive with tales of how abuses had been stopped and overcome, and how Canada had led the way with the Charter of Rights.

Izzy Asper met then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who liked the idea. Somewhat naively, he thought it would be enough to bring in a handful of people he could count on to donate a few million dollars each.

In 2003, Izzy Asper died, forcing other members of the family to step out of his shadow. Gail had already been given the task of raising money for the museum, but she counted on her dad to be her guide and mentor, as he had been throughout her life.

After all, he was the strategist, the ringmaster, the teacher and the scorekeeper -- the guy who knew prime ministers and other key politicians, as well as the major players.

Gail, the second of his three children, was a lawyer with a husband -- research scientist Michael Paterson -- and two young children. When she was growing up, her father told her she should learn to look after herself and never be dependent on someone else, not even him. Later he would say it was fine with him if she chose to be a full-time mother.

“But at the same time, he was piling on the work,” she recalls with a fond laugh.

“After Izzy died,” his widow, Babs Asper, once told me, “I watched in astonishment as Gail seemed to turn into Izzy, with the same dreams and the same drive.”

One afternoon in Toronto, Gail Asper and Moe Levy raised $5 million visiting the head offices of four banks -- leading Gail Dexter Lord to dub them “Bonnie and Clyde.”

But there were bumps along the road that Izzy Asper had not anticipated -- and he was no longer available to help Gail find a way to overcome them.

Bump One: Not all the wealthy friends Izzy was counting on were willing to invest in a museum.

Bump Two: Costs escalated alarmingly and frequently for 11 years.

Bump Three: When Paul Martin became prime minister, he was reluctant to honour Chretien’s commitment -- although in the end he came through with $100 million to help build the museum, marvelling like everyone else at Gail Asper’s powers of persuasion.

Bump Four: Convincing Stephen Harper (who won the 2006 federal election) to make the CMHR a national museum and provide $22 million of annual federal operating funds.

Bump Five: When it did become a national museum, the Aspers had to give up control of some key matters. Stuart Murray became CEO, and many people were hired -- some of whom eventually left.

[W.Z. Stuart Murray is just a Conservative Party failed politician who was given a cushy job and has no background in human rights. He should be fired as soon as possible.]

Bump Six: A nasty, image-damaging public spat seemed to spin out of control after the Canadian Ukrainian Congress demanded that the Holodomor (the famine suffered by the Soviet-controlled Ukraine in 1932-33) be given a separate gallery and equal treatment with the Holocaust.

Ultimately, sanity will prevail, as expressed in a Winnipeg Free Press editorial, which called the Ukrainian campaign parochial and said it had lost credibility in its effort to reduce the destruction of European Jewry to just another genocide.

concept will be abandoned; and "human rights[W.Z. Hopefully, sanity will prevail -- Gail Asper will be removed from the board of directors of the museum; the racist "Holocaust gallery" will be eliminated; and "human rights" rather than "human wrongs" will become the theme of the museum.]

Meanwhile, the Asper family was enduring its own setbacks. First there was the long, painful unravelling of the CanWest media empire. Then in July, Babs Asper died suddenly while awaiting medical tests.

“It has been brutal,” Gail Asper says. “It feels outrageously unfair that neither Dad nor Mom will be there when the museum opens.”

But on that day, as distinguished visitors marvel at the Tower of Hope and the Garden of Contemplation, no one will say that Gail Asper failed to reach for the stars.


Roman Serbyn:
 08Nov2011 at 8:30 AM
CMHR should feature rights, not wrongs!

If truth be said, Izzy Asper's dream was a Holocaust Museum, and what he was willing to settle for was a Human Rights museum with the Holocaust as the focal center piece. This was the legacy inherited by Gail Asper who later accommodated it to the political realities of the day. Human rights were to be explained in terms of the lessons learned from the Holocaust, as were also the other abuses of human rights, i.e., the 50 other identified genocides and major mass atrocities. What Gail Asper then planned was a Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, under the misleading name of “Human Rights Museum.”

If the CMHR is to become a world-class museum FOR human rights, as it claims to be, then it must center its philosophy and exhibits on HUMAN RIGHTS and not human wrongs (which the Holocaust, the Holodomor and other genocides are). In the title of Professor Michael Marrus’s letter to the Globe and Mail (“Rights not Wrongs”) we have the problem of the museum in a capsul. It is unfortunate that because of Ms Asper's stubbornness (as underscored by her brother), the CMHR administration is not willing to rise above the original plan and create an institution that would be truly unique (there is nowhere yet a world-class museum devoted specifically to human rights). There can be little doubt that such a museum would be a worthy memorial to Izzy Asper and his family, and in which the Canadian government and the Canadian society could take great pride.

Martin Knelman’s suggestion that the Ukrainians are trying to "reduce the destruction of European Jewry to just another genocide" is insulting not only to the Ukrainian community but also to the memory of the victims of all genocides. To suggest a hierarchy of genocides is beneath reproach. The demand of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (not Canadian Ukrainian Congress) for commensurate space in the Museum to that of the Holocaust is not insane and certainly not more parochial than the insistence on a stand-alone and pivotal Holocaust gallery. Or to put it in another way, in a “human rights” museum, the insistence on a privileged position for one’s own genocide, whether it be the Holocaust or the Holodomor, does look can easily be interpreted as parochial.

Shrinking Violet:  07Nov2011 at 7:11 PM
Gag me with a stick!
"...the Canadian Ukrainian Congress demanded that the Holodomor (the famine suffered by the Soviet-controlled Ukraine in 1932-33) be given a separate gallery and equal treatment with the Holocaust" A falsehood is not rendered true through repetition. For example, repetitively saying "the Arabs started the 1967 War" will never turn Israel's "preemptive strike" against Egypt into a war of self-defense. The Ukrainian Congress only insisted that one ethnic group's suffering should not be elevated above all others. i.e. all the museum's galleries should be thematic, comparative, and inclusive. Plus I think Gail lost the "reach for the stars" thing when she effectively told Canadian taxpayers to "reach for the sky", a la Billy Miner. The WFP's editorial wherein they accused the UCC of parochialism is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of racist ideology. See for yourself: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/editorials/museum-complaint-parochial-118563254.html. As with Israel's Museum of Tolerance, t

CSullivan:  07Nov2011 at 1:17 PM
When you think about it, a museum of human rights ought to be full of dioramas that depict people being nice to each other. What Gail Asper has been pushing for is more like a museum of atrocities. That could be interesting, but to rise to the level of a legitimate museum (rather than a propaganda centre promoting a specific, politically correct interpretation of complex historical events) it would have to present the relevant information dispassionately and with some respect for its inherent, if morbid, fascination. I doubt Winnipeg will get anything like that, unfortunately.

II53:  07Nov2011 at 11:55 AM
"Gail Asper never gave up"
An unentertaining column that is not only parochial in style but far from accurate in describing the principled concerns raised by the Ukrainian Canadian community over the proposed contents and governance of the tax payer funded Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Smacks of bias.

parkdale**:  07Nov2011 at 10:50 AM
The Asper Museum is not about Human Rights it is about the Aspers and people that love the Aspers. The author is clearly one of the later. I don't care and resent the tax payer money spent glorifying the Aspers.

faunus:  07Nov2011 at 9:48 AM
A Taxpayer Funded Monument for a Private Sector Exceptionalist?
Interesting hagiography of Izzy Asper and family. While a laudable expression of human rights, this museum should not be funded with over $160 million taxpayer dollars. Not in these times of supposed austerity. The Asper family can afford to pay for their own monument to their father. Mr. Asper expressed strong Zionist views, and offered little sympathy to those whose suffering might get in the way of his “ideals”. A genuine humanitarian cares for the burdens of all, and offers support irrespective of race or religion. Mr. Asper considered his views to be so paramount, he extended them to the media empire he controlled, and the reporters he fired, for expressing views contrary to those he permitted his presses to print. The idea of, and right to, a “free press” did not appear to be embraced with warmth or enthusiasm, by this seeming paragon of universal human rights.

remmycool:  07Nov2011 at 09:44 AM
You don't need to spend $310 million to honour human rights
Spending that much money on a museum is an insult to the people who actually work towards human rights instead of writing checks and giving lip service. Think about how many people could be helped out of poverty and oppression by even a small fraction of that cost. Her heart's in the right place, but her head is pointed in entirely the wrong direction.

Clistto:  07Nov2011 at 9:07 AM
Asper legacy...
Jewish human rights more important and worthy of attention than all others combined. With that attitude prevailing over this thing, thanks but no thanks. Fund it yourselves.