Asper vision spurred action
(photo by Rebeca Kuropatwa)
Miracle at the Forks: The Museum that Dares Make a Difference, which chronicles the 14-year journey to plan, build and open the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR), was launched on Sept. 22 at the museum with Gail Asper, Moe Levi, Stuart Murray, and co-authors Peter C. Newman and Allan Levine. The 200-page book, released by Figure 1 Publishing, officially hit the bookstands on Sept. 23.
In her remarks at the launch, Asper said that she was pleased with the volume’s title. “I love it because it is miraculous … being inside this museum we’ve talked about for 14 years … this is a really great time for Winnipeg, Manitoba and the world.”
She continued, “We started on this journey to find a way to educate our youth about our human rights violations that occurred in our history and to inspire people to take action. This has been a long, often challenging, and many times miraculous journey from dream to reality. That’s why we’re thrilled that non-fiction writers Peter C. Newman and Allan Levine are here and have written a compelling book, recounting the story from the day Dad – Israel (Izzy) Asper – dreamed of a centre for human rights and gave Moe Levi the mandate to make it happen, to the completion of the building this year.
“During the dark days after my dad’s passing, it was Moe’s support, his ridiculous optimism and resolve, that kept us going…. And, of course, thank you to the federal government under the leadership of Stephen Harper, this maverick person whose courageous decision to make this a national museum ensured our going forward. Also, thanks to our 8,200 donors who’ve made this day possible.”
Newman described the book’s overarching purpose. “Canada was built on dreams as well as appetites. This country was founded by waves of immigrants with big ideas and big dreams. The [Canadian] Museum of Human Rights will dramatically alter Winnipeg’s skyline. But its name is a misnomer; museum is too limiting a description. That’s a venue people visit to remind one another of past lives … memories that can light up a rainy Sunday afternoon.
“This museum is to make a difference. This book is about how this idea, which seemed far too risky to be Canadian, actually came about. Its purpose is more significant than its contents…. If you consider this notion, it really defines what this is all about. Its existence will turn focus on its mission. The key to this great achievement is the image you get of a long time ago.”
Co-author Levine said, “I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with Izzy Asper and listen to him talk…. He told me often, one of the secrets of success came down to perseverance. He just never gave up on anything he did.
“The CMHR project gave new meanings to that. As Peter and I were researching and writing the book, I was struck by the amazing perseverance of Gail and Moe, and other members of the Asper family and foundation. They refused to quit, and are standing in the museum today.”
Levine read aloud excerpts from the book’s section “A Magnificent Conception,” about the delay in getting the museum off the ground.
“You see, Asper was not a journey-to-the-destination type of person. He was a just-get-to-the-destination kind of guy. So, if you’d told him in 2003, prior to his death, that more than a decade later the Museum for Human Rights would not be open, he would have been appalled.
“Back in 2000, once the initial idea of the Museum of Tolerance, as it was first referred to, began to germinate, and after Asper had found a spot at the Forks where he wanted to build it, plans advanced methodically and purposefully.
“Asper’s vision, although not clearly articulated initially, was to establish a museum that would teach the lessons of the Holocaust as well as examine human rights in a Canadian context against the backdrop of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There was a part of Canada’s history that had never been told, and he spoke really with as much passion about the Holocaust as he did about the Japanese, Chinese and Aboriginal societies, in particular.
“The project Asper envisioned was unique for several other reasons, factors that would prove a stumbling block difficult to hurdle, the grandeur of the museum Asper had in mind was akin to the Guggenheim Museum in Spain.
“One misconception that stands out is how people believe that he intended this to be a private museum … the opposite is true. Right from the beginning, he stated that he only wanted to spearhead this project, not run it or control the agenda.
“In the early years, Asper had underestimated the opposition he was to face from just about every corner – skeptical politicians who questioned the need for such a mammoth and expensive museum, academics and journalists who did not believe the museum of human rights could be done properly, or whether it was even necessary.
“Ottawa bureaucrats protested loudly about placing a national rights museum anywhere but in Ottawa, and a collection of naysayers who questioned the use of the Asper Foundation’s use of tax-payer money as part of an alleged scheme to advance so-called Jewish interests.
“Yet, even if he had known of the obstacles that stood in his path, Izzy would never have quit. Always he had persevered. As Gail recalls about her father, there’s a great quote that comes ‘Do it: do or do not. There is no try. Let’s just get the job done.’
“At the same time, there had been times when he had tried and tried and tried, and he failed. But the bottom line is, if you keep trying, the perseverance will pay off somewhere.”
When finished reading the first book excerpt, Levine shared, “Izzy, by the way, dictated things. Gail was instructed by her father that she was to dedicate half her day, every day, to the museum.
“So this, I quote, from Izzy’s letter to his daughter: ‘You must get up and end every day and ask yourself, 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 for us and discipline the outlined above.
‘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.’” Levine added, “And Gail obviously followed that [instruction].”
“Working with Allan and Peter has been one of the joys of putting this whole project together,” Levi added in his remarks. “It made me reminisce with Gail, and many times we laughed and cried thinking back [on] this incredible journey. I think it’s a great book. The key thing here is all the proceeds of this book go to the Friends [of the CMHR]. Anytime you buy it, you’re helping a child come to visit the museum in Winnipeg.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.