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Photo by Keith Levit

Gail Asper at the opening of the CMHR
Photo by Leor Rotchild Producer, Worldviews Project

Robert Duerksen, P.Eng., Construction Manager, PCL Constructors Canada

Grant Van Iderstine, MAA, OAA, SAA, MRAIC Practice Leader, Architecture 49

Editor's Report: On the Scene at the Inaugural Opening of the Canadian Human Rights Museum

By Rhonda Spivak, January 21, 2015






[Editor's note: I have often wondered what it was that contributed to Gail Asper's fortitude and unstoppable drive to turn her father's dream of a Canadian Human Rights  Museum into a reality, notwithstanding significant obstacles. In this regard, I point readers to an article which sheds some insight on this very point  in the Vancouver Jewish Independent (,)  written by Rebecca Kuropatwa about the book launch of "Miracle at the Forks: The Museum that Dares Make a Difference co-authored by Peter C Newman and Allan Levine. According to that article, Gail Asper spoke of learning the value of perseverance from her father, and said "…the bottom line is, if you keep trying, the perseverance will pay off somewhere.”




As Kuropatwa's article relates, Levine after he finished reading the first book excerpt said "Gail was instructed by her father that she was to dedicate half her day, every day, to the museum."




The Winnipeg Jewish Review spoke to Levine who quoted from a letter Izzy Asper wrote to his daughter in April 2003: ‘You must get up and end every day by asking “what did I achieve in finding 60 million needed from the private sector for the museum?” You are not to take any calls, answer any letters, or have any meetings with people who are seeking donations from the Asper Foundation. That is Moe’s job, and not to be duplicated.




‘I’m spelling all of this out because this is your opportunity to prove that you can act like a senior executive and not to be distracted by everything that happens to go by. I hope you can exercise the focus and discipline outlined above.




“Believe me, this is the way I’ve operated all my life and, in my opinion, the only way you can accomplish things that everyone thinks can’t be done.”




It would appear that Gail Asper indeed followed her father’s instructions as outlined in his letter.]








Some four months after April 17, 2003 when he participated in the ground breaking ceremony for the Canadian Human Rights Museum in on a gravel parking lot at the Forks, Izzy Asper, the visionary behind the idea of the CMHR passed away.




At the opening of the CMHR on Sept 19, 2014   before some 850 invited guests, Gail Asper, who has been the pivotal and driving force behind the museum project, referring to the museum as “a miracle." She said that with her father's passing "Our family had a huge decision to make-to continue with this project or abandon it. We decided to carry on as our father would have wanted."




Gail Asper further noted that it was unfortunate that both her father and her mother Babs, who passed away some three years ago, could not be there to see the opening of the CMHR. "It pains me my father and mother are not here to join us."




Leonard Asper echoed this same sentiment to the Winnipeg Jewish Review noting that since his parents were not alive to see the opening of the CMHR it was "a bittersweet moment."




As he said, "On the selfish side, I wish my parents were here to see it, But what a great thing for Canada. Outside of Winnipeg people are talking about it. It creates an economic engine for Winnipeg. It's put Winnipeg on the map. It's going to serve the purpose of educating the world. The bad guys always have weapons [including weapons of mass destruction]…The good people need a weapon of mass education. This museum will serve as such a weapon. It's amazing it's in Winnipeg."




David Asper, Chair of The Asper Foundation said “The tangible aspect of the project comes with our announcement of the pilot project that will eventually bring thousands of Canadian students to Winnipeg each year as part of the Asper Foundation Human Rights and Holocaust Education program. This drives not just knowledge and hopefully activism, but also real economic benefits to Manitoba and an extension of brand Winnipeg which has been an essential aspect of the business case underlying the project.”




Gail who spearheaded one of the biggest fundraising campaigns in Canadian history to get the museum built, said in her remarks at the opening "Our father saw what no one else could see," adding that "He viewed a human rights museum right here in his beloved city as an agent for change in Canada and the world..."




She received a standing ovation after paying an emotional tribute to her late father and all those who made his vision of building a "beacon of hope."




"I was privileged with the adventure of a lifetime," she told the crowd. "This is for all of you."




Gail also spoke about Moe Levy's contribution to the building of the Museum. "I have been privileged to work with Moe over the past 14 years as he went about convincing people what a museum such as this might become."




Asper also recognized the efforts of her brothers David and Leonard, and thanked her husband Mike Paterson and sons Stephen and Jonathon for their ongoing support over this 14 year journey. She praised Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his decision seven years ago to accept the museum as a national museum, thereby committing the Federal government to funding its ongoing operating costs.




Shelley Glover, Minister for Canadian Heritage and Official languages and MP for St Boniface said she was "proud to say that through the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper the Federal government is a key partner in this project.




"It is a mark of a great country that we can acknowledge past wrongs and try to learn from our mistakes," she added. 




Greg Selinger, Premier of Manitoba, who also made remarks at the opening, told the Winnipeg Jewish Review "The Museum is fantastic. I think it is going to be a world class institution, focusing on human rights which can only be good for humanity."




The WJR spoke with Ralph Appelbaum, the head of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the world's largest museum exhibition design firm, with offices in New York City, London, Berlin, Moscow and Beijing. The practice has designed over 700 museums ranging from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the US Capitol, re-housing the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom and national museums in over 40 countries.




Mr. Appelbaum noted that “The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is a visionary concept created by Israel Asper and based on the telling of human rights stories collected throughout Canada. He understood that each would be a powerful force for change. The idea was to remind us to be vigilant in our efforts, to have empathy and compassion for others, and motivate through interactive media and exhibits seamlessly integrated in a memorable architecture. Designed to inspire and recognize our desires to do good, the founders hoped that each of us could be an agent for change. By bearing witness to events like the Holocaust, we come to better understand our responsibilities to each other and the motivations of those who strive to respond to injustice and the abuse of rights.




Appelbaum noted he first got involved with the Museum a little over 10 years ago with a phone call from Moe Levy on behalf of Izzy Asper asking him to get involved in a museum project that would “transform how people thought of their relationship to others.”




Mr. Appelbaum commented that “It stands as a tribute to the collaborative efforts of thousands of Canadians to do all they can to make Canada the preeminent human rights nation, a country sensitive and supportive to the needs of its citizens. To encourage the quest to continue to refine and calibrate our individual and national moral compass. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights reminds us all to the joys of doing good unto others.”




At the opening of the CMHR, the Winnipeg Jewish Review also spoke with construction manager Rob Duerksen, of PCL Constructors Canada




Duerksen spoke of how the “mountain” of individually cut 400,000-year-old pieces of limestone is surrounded by a glass cloud of 1,300 individually cut panes. He explained that in order to help install the glass cloud, PCL and the glazing trade built 60,000 square feet of vertical scaffolding.




"Once the scaffolding came down, there was no going back up to change things," Duerksen said, noting ""You had to be constantly thinking ahead."





Duerksen also spoke of the need to ensure that the thousands of visitors coming to the museum throughout the construction period were safe, noting that the project maintained an excellent safety record... He recalled escorting former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who has a heart condition to the top of the museum.




"At the base of the spiral stairway to the tower of hope I asked him 'Are you OK with stairs?'





According to Duerksen, “Chrétien said "I may have had bypass surgery but I will race you to the top,"





Chretien ran up three steps at a time, and "beat me to the top."




Duerksen also spoke of the interior construction of the CMHR also being a huge challenge




"Some concrete walls were sloped, concave and tapered," he said, explaining that this required making and placing forms in a totally unique way.





Duerksen also noted with pride that there were more than 100 major sub-trades and suppliers involved whose work was exemplary, and many of the thousands of tradespeople, suppliers and workers were from Winnipeg.




"We are proud to showcase what we have done," he added




Duerksen also spoke of taking his own teenager children in 2012 on a tour of the building as it was being constructed.




"They were blown away," he said. "For once in my life, I was Cool Dad."




Architecture 49 was the executive architect of the CMHR, and after the opening ceremony the WJR spoke with Grant Van Iderstine, Project Architect with A49, who spoke of what it was like to deliver Antoine Predock’s design:




“Antoine Predock 's design concept is  arguably the most geometrically and spatially unique structures we have ever worked on. Realizing this building involved a multi-disciplinary approach of rare magnitude in the Canadian design world.”




The museum is "one of the most complicated projects anywhere in North America, according to Van Iderstine and the building, which is designed to elicit emotional responses on the journey to enlightenment, creates a spiritual backdrop for the stories represented in the exhibits.




Van Iderstine noted that the Museum  has already garnering widespread design recognition including: Global Best Project Award in the Cultural Category from Engineering-News Record (2014), the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction (CISC) Ontario Steel Design Awards of Excellence (2013), and the Honourable Mention by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, and Award of Excellence, Innovation in Architecture (for BIM). The Museum has also just won the Presidential Award of Excellence at the Manitoba Masonry Design Awards.  (Masonry is a major feature of the Museum – the building contains over 175,000 individually cut pieces of limestone, basalt and alabaster). The CMHR's structural engineer also just won the Association of Canadian Consulting Engineers Shreyer Award, the highest engineering excellence award in Canada presented to a project that best demonstrate technical excellence and innovation.




Van Iderstine spoke of the "unparalleled challenges." in  creating this "world-class showpiece of architecture:"




"To make sloping stone walls is technologically very difficult and some people felt it could not be done. But our role was to come up with solutions for things that Antoine wanted to have done. The structural engineering in the museum is amazing. This is a super complicated structure," he said




"The complex nature of the building form - an intricate integration of concrete, steel and glass - pushed the boundaries of the conventional design process, application technologies, and construction delivery. The use of technologies including 3D modeling will forever change the way complex projects are designed, managed and built," he added.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.