Around the Jewish World Canadian Philanthropist Wants New Museum with Holocaust Gallery

A proposed human rights museum in Canada could tell the stories of both the Holocaust and of Palestinian refugees, the man behind the project says.

After years of wrangling, a leading Canadian Jewish philanthropist has unveiled an ambitious plan to build a major national human rights museum in Winnipeg containing a gallery dedicated to the Holocaust.

Modeled in part on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the Winnipeg museum is slated to feature a 21-story Tower of Hope and multiple exhibits focusing on the theme of racial, religious and sexual intolerance.

Five years ago, the Canadian government shelved plans to build a Holocaust wing in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa after Canadians for a Genocide Museum, along with veterans groups, voiced strong opposition to it.

But media mogul Israel “Izzy” Asper, founder of CanWest Global Communications and president of the Asper Foundation, which is spearheading the multimillion-dollar project, has made public assurances that the museum will be inclusive and historically balanced. Asper is identified with many Jewish causes and owns newspapers that take a strongly pro-Israel editorial stance.

“This museum will be totally apolitical and antiseptic in terms of trying to preach a message of one kind of inhumanity over another,” Asper explained at a Winnipeg news conference.

Asked whether Palestinian organizations would have an opportunity to submit material for exhibition, Asper replied that every group would have a chance to do so.

“Let’s say the Palestinians want to make a case and their case is the refugees,” he said. “Well, then you’d say, ‘That’s fine, there were 650,000 Palestinian refugees from the war of 1948 and there were 850,000 Jewish expulsions from Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia etc.’ So we’d tell both stories.”

Despite the assurances, preliminary plans for a Holocaust gallery — which would take up 1,200 square meters out of a total of 5,600 square meters of exhibition space — have generated sharp complaints from Canadians for a Genocide Museum, a coalition of some two dozen ethnic associations representing Canadians of Arab, Palestinian, Greek, Armenian, Rwandan and other backgrounds.

In essence, the coalition seeks to refute one of the museum’s fundamental premises: that the Holocaust is a unique example of genocide in history and stands as a template or organizing metaphor through which all other genocides may be viewed.

“We shouldn’t single out one as being more significant or more important than others,” said coalition spokesman John Gregorovich, who heads the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association, a radical splinter group of the larger Ukrainian Canadian Congress, which has endorsed the museum project.

Moe Levy, the Asper Foundation’s executive director, denied that the foundation will play favorites.

“We’ve approached this topic head-on,” he said. “It is a museum for human rights, not the Holocaust.”

The proposed Canadian Museum for Human Rights will be “a signature building, an artistic icon of Winnipeg to Canada, but also of Canada to the world,” Asper said.

Frank Gehry, Moshe Safdie and Daniel Libeskind are among 40 top architects who have been invited to submit designs for the museum, which foundation officials hope will become an architectural spectacle on a par with the Sydney Opera House or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Construction of the $200 million project, the largest in Winnipeg’s history, could begin as early as next spring. Located along the city’s riverfront, the museum is expected to open in 2007 and draw an estimated 300,000 visitors annually.

The museum will frame the subject of human rights and tolerance in a Canadian context and offer a national narrative complete with warts and beauty marks, foundation officials say.

The museum will be the first Canadian example “of what we’re calling an idea museum,” Levy said. “It’s a museum based not on artifacts but on ideas and history and education.”

Asper, whose parents came to Canada in the 1920s from Ukraine, said he first discussed the idea for the museum with a supportive Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in about 1983, and that he has been involved in “grueling” and “frustrating” talks with the federal government over funding since he began seriously developing the proposal three years ago.

The government has agreed to contribute $30 million immediately toward the project and more at a later phase. The province and city have each committed $20 million.

For his part, Asper has pledged to raise at least $60 million from private sources and indicated that his foundation, which has given out more than $100 million in recent years, will cover any shortfall.

Learning from the mistakes that doomed similar initiatives in recent years, Asper has obtained support for the museum from a wide array of social, religious and ethnic cultural groups.

The outcry concerning the plan for the Holocaust gallery prompted legislative hearings on the matter.

“It became a hot political issue,” recalled historian Jack Granatstein, a former director of the Canadian War Museum, who noted that the proposed wing would have conflicted with that museum’s mandate to tell the story of Canada’s military history from a Canadian perspective.

Federal officials have shown little enthusiasm for a stand-alone national Holocaust museum because of the controversy the issue has generated. For a while, the parties toyed with the idea of two Ottawa museums, one for the Holocaust and one for all other genocides, but abandoned it as impractical and untenable.

Canadian Jewish Congress officials have applauded Asper for breaking the logjam over a national Holocaust memorial, and have endorsed the planned museum with only a minor reservation — they want it built in Ottawa, the nation’s capital.

“We think that the Asper initiative is a good one and we’re behind it,” said Eric Vernon, the director of the Canadian Jewish Congress. “But we still think there should be something in the nation’s capital as an adjunct to that facility. It’s important that visitors to the national capital see tangible evidence of the government’s commitment to the Holocaust and to human rights education.”

Adam Fuerstenberg, director of a community-funded Holocaust center in Toronto, which receives visits from some 20,000 high school students annually, also praised the Asper initiative but argued that the museum should be built in Toronto, which is the “center of Canada.”

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