Gail Asper helps bring a dream to life
By Jim Peters
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is the first museum in the world solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights. As most Winnipeggers know by now, the vision and driving force behind the museum’s conception was media mogul and local businessman Israel Asper. But since his death in 2003 his daughter Gail has taken the lead and pushed through many of the obstacles along the way to help bring the building to its fruition.
By her own admission, Gail Asper is a true-blue Winnipegger, born and bred. Raised in the city with her siblings Leonard and David, she attended public schools and eventually graduated from the University of Manitoba with a law degree. She met future husband Michael Paterson in university while working part time at the Elizabeth Dafoe Library. After spending five years practicing corporate and commercial law in Halifax, she returned to Winnipeg in 1989 as General Counsel and Corporate Secretary for Canwest Global Communications Corp., her father’s business empire. She eventually relocated to the Asper Foundation in 2000, working with her father on the organization’s many transformational projects.
Winnipeg Women sat down with Gail in early April 2014:
WW: What inspired your father to first envision a Canadian Museum for Human Rights?
GA: For years, dad had been very concerned about our young people not understanding what human rights really are and how fragile they can be. He wanted to ensure that future generations would become knowledgeable and remain vigilant. So in the late 1990s he asked me to create an educational program where the Asper Foundation would take local kids to Washington, D.C. to visit the Holocaust Museum and other important venues in the Capitol. The program was originally intended for Jewish kids with the intent of teaching them about the Holocaust and also trying to inspire them to learn its lessons—personal responsibility for all humankind. Dad felt very strongly that we can’t rest when other people are enslaved or persecuted—justice and freedom are all of our responsibilities. As I was still working at Canwest, I needed help expanding the program so we hired Moe Levy as Executive Director of The Asper Foundation, and Moe remains one of the most important and instrumental persons in getting this Museum built.
WW: Did your dad feel that today’s generations were out of touch with these issues?
GA: It was dad’s feeling that our kids didn’t understand Canadian history and how their rights came about. I’m proud to report that the trips to Washington continue—we still take over a thousand kids, including non-Jewish and inner-city kids, and also started involving other funders like the Winnipeg Foundation. The kids have to take a course in human rights that the Asper Foundation developed and then visit Washington for three days to see the various museums and monuments to freedom that, frankly, the Americans do so well.
WW: Was there a particular moment in time that you remember the light going on in your head?
GA: Yes, we were in Washington, standing in line to view the Declaration of Independence in the Library of Congress. In the lineup I was talking to the kids and asked them what they knew about Canada’s Charter of Rights. I was saddened to hear them say, not much. They all knew the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” but they sure didn’t know anything from our charter. So I came back to Winnipeg and told dad we needed to create a Canadian experience for our students. He directed us to start taking the kids to Ottawa. But I couldn’t even find the charter anywhere on display in our nation’s capital. And that wasn’t the only thing missing—there was very little on display about aboriginal issues, or the Holocaust or other important human rights events.
That entire experience was the genesis of the CMHR. The date was July 18, 2000, and Moe Levy and my dad had a get-together in dad’s back yard. Then and there they talked about creating a “museum of tolerance” and dad said it should be in Winnipeg—we’re centrally located so kids can come here from across the country and also internationally. We’re going to tell the story of Canadian and international human rights. It will be a call to action to make sure kids today understand how blessed they are to live in this great country and to not take things for granted.
So at 11:00 p.m., Moe got a call from dad who said, “I found the land.” Moe was asleep—of course—dad just started working at 11:00. He told Moe he’d been driving around downtown and saw the land, it’s right by the river, right by the bridge, right across from the St. Boniface Basilica. He said, with his usual confidence, “That’s going to be the museum and by the way, I want you to tie the land up and get it secured by the end of the week!” Moe knew that it would be easier said than done but in just a few weeks he had the board of The Forks all signing confidentiality agreements supporting the project. The people from The Forks had been waiting for a big idea for the land.
WW: So the securing of the land essentially got the ball rolling?
GA: It certainly made things easier! We changed the name to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights because many of us felt that the word tolerance had a negative connotation. About two years go by while dad and Moe worked to develop the business plan and then I start to get involved. Then dad asked Moe and me to start travelling across the country to talk to every group that might have an interest. We told these groups of Canadians that we want to do this with them, not to them or for them, but with them. And everyone thought it was an amazing idea. No one resisted and everyone understood. So we knew from the outset there was an appetite for the concept.
WW: Did your mother play a role in the development of the museum?
GA: She initially played a role by simply being on the Asper Foundation Board which was dad, mom, David, Leonard, and me. She completely endorsed it, of course. But she didn’t have much to do with it until my dad died in October of 2003. Everything changed when he died. Dad was our quarterback. Our one-man force. We all took his orders. When he died, we all had to grow up and assume leadership. And mom, who’d never been in the limelight and didn’t want to be, had to lead the way by supporting us. She became the chair of the Asper Foundation. Leonard and David were busy with their careers at Canwest Global, of course.
But again I have to give Moe Levy a lot of credit. We were still grieving when two weeks after dad’s death, he dragged mom and me to a groundbreaking and launch of the Architectural Competition at The Forks with all the key people—the premier, the mayor, federal people and aboriginal elders. Dad had always believed that this would have to be an architecturally significant building—Winnipeg was not an obvious tourism destination and this building would have to stand out. It was pretty bleak in the beginning after dad’s death but mom was an incredibly calming and inspiring influence. She could cheer you up and calm you down and fix what was broken.
WW: Were there any models or precedents that had been established that you looked to for guidance?
GA: The Guggenheim Museum had just opened in Bilbao, Spain—which demonstrated that by building something architecturally significant you could attract hundreds of thousands of people. So we knew we had to have that for the human rights museum—plus have amazing content.
WW: What was the experience like during the architectural competition?
GA: This was an international architectural competition and it was incredibly interesting. It was the largest architectural competition that Canada has ever launched. We sorted the multitude of entries into dozens of legitimate submissions. These people don’t get paid to do this—they only get paid if they win. Moe pulled together an amazing committee and it was great fun to unwrap these submissions and see the creativity and designs, and in some cases listen to the architects’ explanations. We also had very knowledgeable people on the committee listening and evaluating and helping us. There were museum curators, architects, journalists, philosophers and other experts. I just felt bad that dad wasn’t alive for the architectural competition—he’d have loved it.
WW: When did the fundraising for the museum begin in earnest?
GA: We launched the campaign in April 2003 right after the public announcement of the Museum. Moe was asked to incorporate Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as the main fundraiser. Mom would be at all of our news announcements and got heavily involved with fundraising—to the point where people in her apartment block were afraid to go into the elevator for fear of being cornered by her!
WW: Were you ever afraid the museum would veer off from your father’s vision through the complexity of the process?
GA: Dad actually had an amazing interview with Evan Solomon from CBC a few months before he died. In that interview he described in chapter and verse what the content should be and what the architecture should look like and what his view of the building was. He said it has to be a symbol of Canada so when you see it you’ll know you’re in Canada—like when people see the Sydney Opera House they know it’s Australia. So when we unwrapped New Mexico architect Antoine Predock’s designs there was an almost unanimous feeling around the table that this was something special, something that was speaking to what we were after. It was a real “wow” moment. Most important is that the vision for the exhibits and content has been respected and I am very pleased with the exhibit plan.
WW: I realize you can’t reveal too much about the displays but is there anything you can tell us?
GA: Well we now have a special spot where the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms will be on display. We knew from the outset that the Holocaust would play an important role here—it was generally understood that it was the most powerful way to show people how, in the most civilized society, with the right propaganda, good people can do very evil things. Of course we’ll also be displaying information on other genocides and a multitude of human rights issues, some of which people don’t even know about. We’ll also be supporting our city with a Discover Winnipeg display that really shows people what we have to offer in terms of the arts, sports, theatre and history.
WW: How did you handle all of the controversy surrounding this project—particularly in early days?
GA: Dad taught me the power of perseverance. He always said that if you don’t think you’re right you’ll have a problem dealing with adversity. I knew what we were doing was right—the conversations we had with hundreds of people across Canada had a big impact on my view. And for every nasty email I got I would have 10 others supporting me. We had to convince the federal government that the project was far beyond just what the Asper family wanted—the mayor, the premier and thousands of supporters and ordinary Canadians wanted it. Clearly, we should all feel proud that equality and justice for all is a real Canadian value.
WW: Your involvement with and time spent on the museum must have meant some sacrifices. Any regrets?
GA: Of course I feel a little guilty— ,my two sons were sadly neglected by me over these last 11 years. And I can’t imagine what this would have been like without a loving, supportive husband and incredibly tolerant children. Stephen and Jonathan are 23 and 21 now, but much younger when this was under full development. But Mike really stepped up and supported the boys while I was away and otherwise occupied.
I guess I consider the museum like a third child—a very colicky child that we love very much and that is finally growing up!