Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal
It's Time to Fix It

The World's Meeting Place for Human Rights Leadership
Charles S. Coffey 31 March 2005  

“A man who will not labor to gain his basic human rights, is a man who would not,

if he had them, prize and defend them.”

~ Frederick Douglass


Dear Colleagues,


Charles Sheridan Coffey, O.C., is Executive Vice-President for Government Relations and Public Affairs of RBC,, an unparalleled leader in community and social action and a valued and trusted advisor to the Institute. But that hardly says it all.


He may be singularly unique in this country’s business community in his endeavours reconciling private interests and public rights. He is as much at ease working with labor leaders like Buzz Hargrove on child care issues as he is in corporate boardrooms. From the agenda of the First Nations to the problems of poverty, hunger and homelessness, Charlie Coffey gives selflessly of himself.


He has recently taken on another challenge in an already packed schedule. He is the Chair of the National Advisory Council of the Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. An initiative of the Asper family of Winnipeg, the Museum will be a national and international destination of learning and history where all can experience Canada’s human rights legacy and the responsibilities we all have in the road ahead. It will be the largest human rights centre in the world.


Mr. Coffey has asked us to share his passions and prospects for this project with all of you. It is a document worthy of your time for its speaks not only to a specific time and place, but to the character and conscience of what we should be about as a people.



When Winnipeg student, Hannah Strachan, returned home from her visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, she wrote a poignant letter to Gail Asper, Managing Director of the Asper Foundation. In part she said: “It’s been a life-changing experience…many people are being killed in the world today and we aren’t acting enough on it. How many people have to die before we decide to change the way our society thinks? Whether it’s one person or six million people, we need to fix it. When the Canadian Museum for Human Rights opens (in Winnipeg), I’ll be the first in line. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

The late Israel Asper would have shared Hannah’s sentiment, cheered her bravado and been gratified by the impact of her experience. He established the Asper Foundation in 1983, the foundation that sponsors the Holocaust and Human Rights Studies Program that Hannah participated in last spring. It’s this program that largely inspired Izzy’s dream - his vision – for the creation of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – “the only human rights museum of this scale in the world.   


I’ll always remember Izzy’s words to me after the groundbreaking announcement on April 17, 2003 (the date that coincided with the twenty-first anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms): “Well, the monkey is finally off my back after three years of scratching, searching, lobbying, cajoling and all the other things one does to stay alive. The Museum will not be a Winnipeg landmark, it will be a Canadian and international landmark, sending a signal to the world.  Now, we’re at least in the batter's box, and can go out and get this thing done, because everybody is committed.” 


What would Israel Asper say nearly two years later, with the project in a financial crunch, and no shovel in the ground on the downtown site (The Forks) in his beloved Winnipeg? The remarkable visionary, business leader and philanthropist would predictably offset any inflammatory comments with: “Everything is doable…if you are tenacious enough, you can do whatever you set out to do. Never quit, never forget...and never stand still and watch the world go by.” He’s absolutely right. Passion and vision are not opposing values.


So the lobbying to secure increased financial investment continues…and the message is clear. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is an opportunity for Canada to demonstrate human rights leadership on both the national and international stage. The Museum is an opportunity to put


children, young people and education at the forefront of the national agenda. And the Museum is an opportunity to put a Canadian stamp on building effective public and private partnerships. 


National and International Leadership Value


Why must Canada enhance its international leadership reputation on human rights? Because that’s how Canada will help effect change. We want a world that respects basic human rights for all peoples – we want this for North America – we want this for Afghanistan, India, Africa, China, Haiti, Iraq and countries around the globe.  We recognize that human rights are the foundation of freedom, dignity and democracy. Yet none of our national institutions explain Canada’s historical journey or celebrate Canada’s successes – our stories, our heroes, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 


On September 11th, 2001, the world was transformed immeasurably and irrevocably. As Prime Minister Martin said: “the ultimate human right is the right to personal security.” The attacks on North America were fueled by hatred and intolerance…they reminded us of the unbearable horror of the Holocaust more than a half century ago. This is why the world needs a meeting place for human rights leadership. 

During his United Nations address on September 22, 2004, the Prime Minister said: “we have a all the world’s people, especially the most vulnerable…that duty will not be discharged, unless we, as governments speak to the dignity and freedom of every human being on earth.” This is why the world needs a meeting place for human rights leadership. 

The Prime Minister also spoke his mind about the human tragedy in Darfur: “International response should be more robust. We often get bogged down in debating the issue. While the international community struggles with definitions…people are hungry, they are homeless, they are sick and many have been driven out of their own country. Tens of thousands have been murdered, raped and assaulted.  We must not let debates about definitions become obstacles to action.” This is why the world needs a meeting place for human rights leadership. 

In his reply to the Speech from the Throne on October 4, 2004, the Prime Minister asserted that  “the satisfaction with which we present ourselves to the world as a country of inclusion (and tolerance), will ultimately erode and be lost if we are not vigilant, if we do not vigorously combat racism and exclusion, if we do not together stare into the face of hate and declare: This is not our Canada.”  The meeting place where Canada and the world can come together to stand united against the face of hate is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.   


Through recent visits to Russia, the United Nations and Asia, the Prime Minister is actively promoting human rights. A renewed announcement about a Museum dedicated to human rights supports the Prime Minister’s global mandate and priorities. It will also be a tangible symbol – an icon – of Canada’s innovative leadership in the world arena. The Museum is Canada’s international leadership call to action.


The Prime Minister repeatedly claims that, “the time has come for us to act…the fight against terrorism will only be won if in fact the rights of individuals are respected at the same time.”  If the United Nations is our “moral conscience” for action, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights can be our moral compass for action.


Children and Youth Education Value


Why must Canada focus on human rights education for children and youth? Because that’s how Canada will help to effect change.  Publisher and champion of Canadian history, Lorne Pierce, wrote in 1930: “We must teach history better in order that we make better history to teach.” Since teaching is hardly limited to a local classroom in a local school, we can advance education for children, youth and adults in a global classroom, in a global school – the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. 


Toronto historian, commentator and author Jack L. Granatstein says: “Whether society can function without common cultural capital, is uncertain. For example, how can Canadian voters – and 18-year-olds are voters – make rational political choices (in the 21st century) without understanding such terms as ‘British North America Act,’ ‘Charter of Rights and Freedoms,’ ‘provincial powers’ and ‘Social Union’?” Again, teaching is hardly limited to the classroom. From the early years on, Canadians need a better understanding of our history – of human rights history – to better propel our country’s future.  The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will be the home for compelling Canadian stories and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


The Museum will also help, in an extraordinary way, to prepare and encourage a powerful generation of human rights leaders and advocates. It’ll promote human rights from coast to coast, educating Canadians about our obligation to uphold the principles in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


And through signature architecture, galleries, collections and programs (including virtual learning technology), the Museum will build more awareness around the challenges of building bridges and strengthening relationships among communities. It will be a meeting place for understanding the importance of respecting human rights, a tribute to those who have died defending human rights and a model for all humanity, especially children and youth. The message of universal rights can be Canada's legacy – and the creation of this legacy rests with our young people – their ability and determination to make it happen. 


This is all great news to Grade 8 students at Ecole Seven Oaks Middle School in Winnipeg. During their human rights symposium on January 19th, the gymnasium was filled with projects depicting the Holocaust, the Underground Railroad and South Africa’s/India’s human rights issues. In the years ahead, these students and thousands more, can look forward to a more global classroom, on visits to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. What better way to capture the imaginations of young Canadians than to give our future a past and to give their future greater hope…


On December 10, 2004, International Human Rights Day, Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew declared: “As Chair of the Human Security Network, Canada (delivered) a statement on the importance of human rights education as a tool for preventing human rights abuses…(this day) not only reminds us of the progress made in the last 60 years, it also forces us to recognize how much remains to be done.”  And on January 24, 2005, during a special session of the UN on the Liberation of the Concentration Camps, the Minister quoted the Reverend Martin Niemöller, a German pastor, when referencing the evil of indifference: “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.” Minister Pettigrew may just as well have made the education case for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.


Public/Private Partnerships Value


Why must Canada pursue public/private partnerships for a human rights museum? Because that’s how Canada will help to effect change.  The pursuit of human rights is an intrinsic part of Canada’s identity – of who we are as a people and a country. That’s why the Museum was originally proposed as a public/private sector partnership initiative – a federal institution supported by provincial, municipal and private investment. We can show the world how partnerships are done.  


The private sector and individuals have stepped up to the plate, including several aboriginal, cultural and ethnic groups. Premier Gary Doer and the Province of Manitoba, plus Mayor Sam Katz and the City of Winnipeg, have stepped up to the plate too. The Government of Canada has also stepped up to the plate with its “first investment” and we’re now awaiting a home run – the commitment to the balance of its anticipated financial support. While we have the ear of Treasury Board President and MP for Winnipeg South Reg Alcock and other key players, members of the Museum’s advisory council are still making the pitches in Ottawa and around the country. 


Frank McKenna, a supporter of the advisory council for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, hit the nail on the head when he confirms that: “Canada's greatest legacy at home and around the world will be the ability of our country to sustain and strengthen human rights into the future. Creating the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as a federal institution enhances Canada's national and international leadership reputation as a power broker, peace keeper and upholder of human rights.”


The bottom line is that strategic and financial issues won’t eclipse human rights leadership or the construction of this Museum. Gail Asper, who’s also Chair of the Fundraising Campaign, Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, sums it up well: “One thing is clear; Canadians take the issue of human rights very seriously.  It’s time to seize and act on this magnificent opportunity to brand Canada as a leader in the study and protection of human rights.” It’s also time to get on with building the world’s meeting place for human rights leadership, or in the words of Hannah Strachan, it’s time to “fix it”!