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Winnipeg Free Press | 20Dec2011 | Larry Kusch

Museum delay puts big events in jeopardy
Planners scrambling to rearrange 2013 gatherings

A delay in the expected opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is threatening one of its biggest early events and causing headaches for city event planners who had banked on a 2013 launch.

Over the past several days, since it was learned that the museum wouldn't open until 2014 at the earliest, conference planners have scrambled, said Chantal Sturk-Nadeau of Tourism Winnipeg.

"It's a little bit of a juggling game right now," she said Monday.

For example, a conference of 250 international travel writers and photographers that was to be held here in 2013 was hastily rescheduled for 2014. Winnipeg was fortunately able to switch years with Halifax, Sturk-Nadeau said.

The Canadian Society of Association Executives annual convention was lured years ago to Winnipeg for the fall of 2013 largely due to the anticipated opening that year of the museum. Now, organizers and the CMHR are scrambling to find ways to make things right for the 500 influential delegates, including setting up a tent for them at the museum site, organizing perimeter tours and even having the building's architect flown in to speak to them.

A handful of human rights conventions, booked for 2013, will likely have to be postponed to 2014 or 2015 -- if possible. And other groups who promised to host receptions at the museum may have to scale back their plans.

Meanwhile, one of the museum's early highlights -- a lecture series featuring more than a half dozen leading intellectuals that was to kick off in September 2013 -- is in jeopardy. The series is to include British philosopher Anthony Grayling, feminist Germaine Greer and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour, among others.

The speakers have already signed contracts to appear -- most of them charging only a fraction of what they could command because the series was designed to celebrate the opening of the CMHR. CBC radio has agreed to broadcast all of the lectures nationally, and organizers are negotiating with Oxford University Press to publish the resulting collection of essays.

Arthur Schafer, director of the University of Manitoba's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, which is organizing the series along with the CMHR, said he's worried the delay in opening the museum will scuttle the ambitious series.

He said it's especially frustrating the building will be completed by the end of next year, but will essentially be mothballed until at least 2014 because the museum lacks the funds to complete its displays.

"The idea that they won't proceed with such a hugely important project -- important to the city, important to Canada -- it seems unbelievable that we could get this close and not open," Schafer said, adding he's surprised and disappointed there's been virtually no public uproar.

Angela Cassie, a spokeswoman for the CMHR, said the museum will do its best to try to accommodate the lecture series and other events. It's possible groups could be allowed to use the building before its official opening, although that would depend on safety, staffing and security issues and how much of a strain it would place on the organization's operating budget, she said.

Cassie said a new cost estimate for the building and its exhibits will be unveiled in the next few weeks. Some have speculated construction may be as much as $45 million over its current $310-million budget.

Ottawa originally invested $100 million in the first national museum to be located outside of the Ottawa area as well as $21.7 million in annual operating costs. The province contributed $40 million, while the city offered $20 million. The Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is aiming to raise $150 million from private donations. It's $20 million away from achieving that goal.

A spokesman for Premier Greg Selinger said the province is committed to working with its partners to resolve any outstanding issues. "The province will not make an additional contribution on its own, but we are currently in discussions (with) the other levels of government to ensure the project moves forward," he said.

Meanwhile, local events planners said in interviews Monday they're still enthusiastic about the long-term impact of the museum on the community.

Sturk-Nadeau said the CMHR will give Winnipeg an edge over many cities in being able to attract conventions. "At the same time as the Jets are helping us with the image of being a happening city, the museum is doing the same thing on a whole other side," she said.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 20, 2011 A3