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Cash shortfall delays human rights museum

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The museum currently under construction

WINNIPEG — The Canadian Museum for Human Rights has announced that a funding shortfall will delay its opening for another year or more.

While the physical structure will be completed next year as planned, the museum won’t open in 2013, as had been previously announced. Due to a cash crunch that’s reportedly as high as $45 million, the museum won’t open until at least 2014, and possibly later.

“We are looking to our capital campaign to make up the shortfall,” said Angela Cassie, the museum’s director of communications and external relations.

“We are exploring all options in trying to determine what is feasible or achievable. We will have a better idea of how much we need in a few months time. We don’t want to move ahead with the interior work until we can be sure that we can pay the contractors.”

The three levels of government are most likely not the answer. On Nov. 30, Ottawa turned down a request from the museum’s board for more funding, and the province is close to $1 billion in debt. The City of Winnipeg approved an additional $3.6 million for the project last spring after repeatedly turning down earlier requests.

Thus far, the federal government has contributed $100 million for construction of the first national museum to be built outside Ottawa, and it has pledged to cover $21.7 million a year in operating costs. The province has provided $40 million for construction costs, and the city has given $20 million.

The Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – led by Gail Asper, daughter of media mogul Israel Asper, who first proposed the project in 2003 – has generated $130 million in private donations. The group’s goal was $150 million.

And although the museum is still two years or more away from opening, Winnipeg Sun columnist Tom Brodbeck reported on Dec. 20, that staff salaries are already costing $11 million a year.

Bernie Bellan, owner, publisher and editor of Winnipeg’s Jewish Post & News newspaper, isn’t surprised about the current situation. He first reported on the museum’s cost overruns in November 2010.

“When Israel Asper first proposed this project in 2003, the plan called for a $200-million structure to be completed in three or four years,” he said. “Now it is $310 million and rising, and the opening date is still unknown. This project is out of control.”

Cassie put a positive spin on the delayed opening, saying it buys museum staff more time to fine-tune the facility’s content and get it right. “This delay isn’t a bad thing,” she said. “We are working toward exceeding expectations.”

Cash shortages aren’t the only issues dogging the museum. Both its COO and chief knowledge officer resigned in 2011, and the chair of its board – prominent Winnipeg businessman Arni Thorsteinson – is resigning as of Jan. 1. Cassie noted, however, that he’ll remain involved as a board member of the Friends group.

Then there is the ongoing question of where the Holocaust fits into the new museum. The original plan was for a separate gallery for the Holocaust, based on the role it played in the postwar development of international human rights bodies and legislation.

But from the beginning of the project, the uniqueness of the Shoah has been challenged by a number of different Canadian ethnic groups, in particular by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Many in the Jewish community have expressed concern that the Holocaust gallery will be downsized or merged into a gallery that includes other large-scale atrocities. Cassie said the confusion may stem from discussion about a second gallery that shows how Canada has discriminated against minorities, including how it prevented Jews who were escaping the Holocause from entering Canada.

She said a standalone Holocaust gallery is still in the plans.

 “The galleries [including a standalone aboriginal gallery] will unfold like the chapters in a book,” Cassie said. “The journey needs to be seen as a whole. The Holocaust is an example of what happens when a society abandons the concept of universal human rights and dignity.”

On a positive note, on Dec. 9, the museum and the government of the Netherlands signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate for the promotion of human rights through joint projects and education.


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