Located in The Forks district in central Winnipeg, Manitoba, this architectural gem is reason enough to visit Manitoba’s capital.
As the only national museum outside of Ottawa, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is special and important. Holocaust survivor and great Winnipeg booster, Israel (Izzy) Asper offered huge financial support to the project on the proviso it was built in Manitoba’s Capital. It is a shame he did not live to see its completion.
The museum is as much a conversation as a series of exhibits. It explores important – and challenging – Canadian and international themes. There is a strong focus on First Nations / indigenous issues and rightly so. Manitoba was home to the last residential school in Canada.
With a hugely significant First Nations population, Manitoba and bordering areas in Saskatchewan and Ontario are leading much of the conversation of Truth and Reconciliation.
Indeed the museum explores such troubling (recent) historic events as segregation in Nova Scotia, forced Chinese labour during the construction of the trains in Canada, Japanese internment during World War Two, the exclusion of women from voting, minority language rights, minority religious rights and equal marriage.
It discusses the five recognized genocides (by the Canadian Government); the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, The Rwanda Genocide, Holodomor (the Ukraine famine) and Srebrenica (Bosnia). There is pressure to declare the Residential School system a genocide and this is part of the conversation.
Of course this all sounds particularly heavy, yet the museum manages to strike a balance between tragedy and hope. When I left at the end of my tour, I felt saddened by our collective history, yet empowered to affect our future. We are better when we are honest about our history – both ancient and surprisingly recent.
During my years leading tours in Europe, I had the responsibility of taking various groups through the concentration camp in Dachau. Reflecting upon such crimes against humanity is only part of the process, choosing how to proceed is the real work. When we declare; “never again,” we have an obligation.
The museum has an interactive section where participants are invited to vote with the Supreme Court on actual historic cases. Sometimes rights overlap – this is where the process becomes more complicated.
From an architectural perspective, the museum is magnificent. There are elevators, but also a fabulous (and accessible) network of ramps and eventually stairs to the Israel Asper Tower of Hope, offering panoramic views over Winipeg and the Red River.
Allow at least two full hours for a visit, but honestly two days could be filled. The restaurant is excellent, the staff helpful and the displays are generally interactive. The museum is not heavy on actual artifacts, but the artwork is meaningful and interesting.
Canada is so large that a quick trip to Winnipeg can be challenging, but this museum should be required as an educational and reflective visit. We all have an idea of what are human rights, yet untangling our often competing ideas and beliefs is difficult.
The museum will not bring clarity, but does will provide framework. Visit the museum, it betters us all.