Gazing upon the Tower of Hope

The lessons of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights continue right outside its doors.

By Ian Gill 20 Sep 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Ian Gill's Tyee column, The Poor Mouth, appears every two weeks or so. Gill lives and writes in Vancouver and works on social innovation initiatives. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here, and find him on Twitter @gillwave.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

A picture appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press earlier this week of a woman standing on a wooden deck beside the city's notorious Red River. On the dock was a mat, thought to be covered in blood, that had just been dragged from the river. A short time earlier, bones had been discovered beside a nearby bike trail, and police had taken them away to determine if they were human (they would turn out not to be).

In the background of the photograph there was a railway bridge that spans the river, and behind that rose the Tower of Hope, a signature punctuation of the Winnipeg skyline that announces the presence of the long-awaited and newly-opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

The juxtaposition of this magnificent, if unlikely addition to Canada's inventory of national museums, with a river that rivals B.C.'s Highway of Tears as being synonymous with the grief of our country's aboriginal women, is neither ironic nor unfortunate.

It is entirely appropriate that in this building, in this city, beside this river are displayed articles that make up a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that include but are not limited to:
• Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person; and
• Article 5. No-one shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Tell that to Tina Fontaine, the poor wretch whose body was pulled from the river a few weeks ago, an unspeakable horror that among other things prompted the dragging of the river by volunteers, who this week were looking for the remains of other aboriginal women and girls who have gone missing and are feared to have suffered the same fate as Fontaine.

Winnipeg is actually the perfect place in Canada for a human rights museum, because it is a city with a moral centre and a passion for social justice that is possibly unrivalled in this country, but a city that nonetheless has its flaws, perhaps none greater than its failure to safely accommodate the largest and most vulnerable indigenous population in Canada.

Where better, then, to straddle the tension between celebrating the historic gains in human rights worldwide, and confronting our repeated and continuing inability to uphold those rights in a war-torn world, and in places, like Winnipeg itself, where pernicious poverty and failures in public policy consign thousands of people to lives devoid of basic security, and where the benefits from their purported "rights" as Canadians are mostly but a fiction.

But at least now they can gaze upon a Tower of Hope that scaffolds skywards 100 metres, or the equivalent of 23 storeys, and that offers visitors panoramic views of the city and its river run red. The tower emerges from a massive glass exoskeleton whose segments overlap in a manner that is said to evoke the wings of doves, but just as readily suggests large arms offering an embrace by a caring world.

The museum entrance pathway pitches downwards and funnels visitors into a low chamber in what is a welcome architectural inversion of the vulgarity with which visitors are greeted by Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum. Once inside, the first gallery poses a reasonable question: what are human rights?

A timeline attributes the first expression of human rights as "Ahimsa, the principle of doing no harm, (that) is central to Hindu ethics." Two galleries later, an impressive black and white film running over a 24-panel screen recalls the Komagata Maru, the vessel that in the 1914 was refused entry to Vancouver Harbour, local sentiments not softened by a newspaper headline screaming about "Hindu Invaders" on Canada's west shore. The space between the reference to Ahimsa and the film of the Komagata Maru perfectly encapsulates the often long and deadly distance between high principle and low practice -- which is exactly why concepts of human rights need the kind of constant, repeated, inter-generational learning and re-learning that the Canadian museum seeks to foster.

Between the opening gallery and the large space devoted to Canadian human rights "journeys" (like the Komagata Maru) is an indigenous perspectives exhibit. The circular gallery suggests a cross between a woven basket and a sweat lodge and offers a 360-degree film screen, but at first glance it seems far too antiseptic a space to even begin to convey what human rights have meant, and not meant to indigenous people here and abroad.

Ease of complicity

This first impression, to be fair, was gleaned in media preview mid-week that was notable more for what exhibits had not been installed than for what had been completed; and the museum insists that indigenous programming will play out across the whole of the museum in time. If the content seemed thin, it's because a lot of it was still under wraps this week.

In the gallery devoted to the Holocaust, low-lit and sombre, what is advertised as a "broken-glass" theatre features an assembly of carefully cut if irregular pieces of glass, but if the intention is that these shards convey a sense of danger, the effect is far too safe. Much better is the street map of Auschwitz, and other displays that convey how easily people were made complicit in genocide almost as a logical extension of existing laws, and in the comforting framework of careful town planning and public works. Evil rendered bland, or more famously, banal.

The galleries are co-joined by a magnificent rising stone ramp, 800 metres of polished and backlit Spanish alabaster whose switchbacks allow space for contemplation between the presentations themselves, and whose clean geometric form creates a dazzling ribcage at the building's core. In fact, the use of stone -- the alabaster panels on the ramps, basalt columns in the Contemplation Garden, indeed the whole structure a mass of Tyndall limestone and concrete -- gives enormous weight and a sense of permanence to the museum. Whether the physical bulk of the place can translate into an emotional compact with its visitors that honours the weightiness of the issues it seeks to capture and amplify… well until the place is full of people, interacting what they see and hear, that's impossible to predict.

And interaction, not just passive acceptance, is key. What the museum is relying upon, heavily, is that digital media will help get its stories across. Again, much of that was still being installed this week, but what was up and running was terrific. Digital "books" with screens six-feet high and engaging on-screen interlocutors conveying intelligent content. A long, bright digital "study board" where you can call up any of 18 examples of genocide worldwide. A huge on-screen map of human rights, constantly and cleverly introducing and geo-referencing all manner of facts about human rights (between 1974 and 2007, 34 countries including Canada have created truth commissions; 11 per cent of the world's children perform child labor, etc). Lots of museums have attempted to curate using digital media, and the human rights museum is the first in my experience that may have found the keys to what works for anyone over the age of seven.

As you switch back and forth and move upward between the galleries, there is a conscious attempt to bring you closer to the building's natural light, or to enlightenment, through displays that are programmed to provoke a mental transition from the darkness of historic abuses towards a place that will rally visitors, especially children, to action. Conceptually, it's a nice idea. Whether it works will very much depend on the chemistry of the content, and whether the admixture that has existed in the minds of the curators actually works on real people.

'Let's start the dialogue'

What won't ever be resolved, of course, is the argument over what's in and what's out. Ukrainian activists deplore what they see as a lack of attention to the Holodomor, literally the "murder by hunger" overseen by Stalin in 1932-33. The war-time internment camps don't get enough attention, the museum has been told. The list of Indigenous grievances, meanwhile, is a long one. To my mind, these disputes will be settled more by the quality of revelation than just a quantum of representation.

Gail Asper, daughter of the late Izzy Asper, who dreamed up the museum in the first place, said earlier in the week that the museum was resigned to criticism. "There has been no more consulted, studied museum in the world, I guarantee. We did studies. We did polls. We found out what Canadians wanted to see. How much Canadian? How much past? How much current? We've really tried to listen... it's time to get the thing open. Let's just start the dialogue."

Yesterday, they got the thing open. There was nothing ironic about the fact that the museum was birthed with blessings from Treaty One First Nations, Metis and Inuit elders, or that throughout their prayers and the opening remarks of the Governor-General and others, a small but raucously disruptive crowd of protesters loudly announced mostly Indigenous grievances over environmental degradation, loss of traditional hunting rights, lack of safe drinking water on reserves, and neglect in general. "You’re getting away with murder," one protester screamed into a bullhorn. Chief Erwin Redsky from Shoal Lake, a source of Winnipeg's drinking water, had earlier pointed to the new museum as a "shrine to hypocrisy... If you come to our community you'll see the hypocrisy for yourself... We're creating our own museum," he said, "a real-life museum with real people. You'll see the poverty. There's two ends of this pipe, the water pipe from my community to this city. On this end, there's prosperity, all the good stuff. On our end, our community is slowly dying."

For the hundreds of dignitaries and guests, for people who have raised and spent more than $350 million and devoted over a decade to build Winnipeg's wonderful new monument to human rights, the shrillness of yesterday morning's protest was obviously an irritant. But this is what Winnipeg has agreed to take on. Izzy Asper dreamed of a place where dialogue about human rights could take place, and while people's patience was sorely tested at the opening ceremony of a building yesterday, the opening of a venue to confront very different world views about who is winning and who is losing in this world almost demanded that the disaffected be there to lodge their complaints.

Asper's vision has come to fruition, perhaps more fully than he intended. Gail Asper told the Free Press this week, "He always said that when you see this museum you'll know you're in Canada, just like when you see the Eiffel Tower you know you're in Paris, or see the Sydney Opera House and you know you're in Australia. That's what he wanted. They'll come to the building. They won't be able to avoid learning about human rights."

So it is that from the The Izzy Asper Tower of Hope you behold not Paris and the Seine, nor Sydney and its harbour, but Winnipeg and its Red River. You see a city that has an admirable if somewhat eroded architectural heritage that is undergoing a significant renaissance, and where the house that Izzy built thoroughly deserves its place. You also look upon a city whose citizens, as with all the citizens of Canada and of the world, have equal rights, unequally observed. If the Canadian Museum for Human Rights can embrace the complexities of the inequalities on its doorstep, and contribute meaningfully to their resolution, it might just help Canada regain some of its global moral authority that has been diminished in recent years because, ironically and unfortunately, of our abrogation of our most vulnerable citizens' most fundamental human rights.  [Tyee]

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