The Canadian Museum for Human rights, in Winnipeg, has adopted a universal approach to bear witness to the importance of human rights. It emphasizes the constant effort made to acquire and maintain these rights. Although a number of institutions, memorial sites and historic sites deal with specific issues, such as tragedies including genocide, this museum is the first to explore human rights from a general perspective, both in Canada and around the world. It encourages visitors to reflect on their perception of human rights, to understand how tenuous these rights are and to support their application. It is very fitting to showcase the beauty human rights in the superb building that houses the museum.
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Bearing witness to struggles and achievements, encouraging reflection
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights has both temporary exhibits and permanent galleries that tell different stories related to human rights. In contrast to what is done in many other museums, this museum’s message is conveyed through testimonies and accounts of experiences, not by a collection of objects. This choice makes it possible to exhibit personal and intimate views of the themes addressed by the museum. People are at the centre of reflections on human rights. Emotions sometimes run high.
Visitors discover that human rights have many facets and many faces, such as those of the Canadian Francophone, Métis and Indigenous minorities. Francophones, a minority in Manitoba, had to fight fiercely to obtain the right to be educated in their own language. The rights of the Métis to the lands they had cultivated for decades were abused and trampled on. The rights to identity and the respect for culture were denied in the residential schools established for Indigenous peoples, where an attempt was made to eradicate the “Indian” in the First Nations children whom the authorities had torn away from their parents.
Sites pregnant with meaning
The architecture and layout of the museum were carefully designed to illustrate a journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge of human rights. Visitors begin their experience in a large darkened room, dug out of the ground, evoking the primitive gatherings of humanity. They then discover the first themes associated with discrimination and mass crimes. They then climb a few levels, guided by alabaster handrails that stand out in the darkness. As they move ahead, visitors discover better illuminated galleries with more optimistic themes that focus on education, tolerance and the struggle against discrimination. At the very end of the visit, the Israel Asper Tower of Hope, named for the man who launched the museum, is a lighthouse symbolizing enlightenment, which also affords a splendid view of Winnipeg.
Winnipeg was a relevant choice to establish such a museum, for certain striking historical events relating to human rights occurred there. The Red River Rebellion, in 1869 and 1870, is one of them. Under the leadership of Louis Riel, the Métis refused to give up their lands, as the Hudson’s Bay Company had given them a verbal promise to honour their property rights over these lands. In 1870, Louis Riel obtained justice and saw to it that the provisional government of the Métis of Manitoba was included in Canadian Confederation. However, his victory was only partial, and many Métis had to leave Red River. In 1919, another major event occurred in Winnipeg: a general strike that turned out to be decisive step in the birth of the labour union movement in Canada.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is located just beside the Riel Esplanade, a pedestrian bridge that symbolically unites Winnipeg’s Francophone and Anglophone communities. The Franco-Manitoban architect who designed this memorial site, Étienne Gaboury, also adorned nearby Provencher Bridge with intertwined symbols representing the diversity and complementarity of the communities that make up the social fabric of Manitoba.
A little story about a big museum
The idea for a museum devoted to basic rights emerged in 2003. Initially, it was the private initiative of Israel Asper, a prominent Manitoban lawyer, politician and businessman, and son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. When Asper died the same year, his idea was adopted by the government, given the importance and relevance of this theme for Canada and today’s world. Construction started in 2009, and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was inaugurated in 2014. It is, with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, Canada’s only national museum that is located outside the Ottawa‑Gatineau National Capital Region.