02/26/2012 12:04 EST | Updated 04/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Ok, So it's Winnipeg -- But Finally Our Human Rights Champions Will Get Their Due

How many Canadians know who Viola Desmond was? In 1946, years before Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the back of a bus in the U.S. South; Ms. Desmond refused to sit in the balcony seats reserved for blacks in a Halifax cinema. She deserves a place in the history of Canada -- and she, and many other Canadian human rights heroes, will get it here in Winnipeg.

At the very crossroads of Canada, at the historic Forks site in Winnipeg, on a hallowed river plain where leaders of the First Nations convened to make peace, a museum is being built to celebrate human rights. Its huge steel and glass exterior reflects the blue Prairie sky, the snow and ice of winter, and the green crops and brown earth of Canada's heartland where food is grown to feed the world.

Its mission is to mark how far we have come in civilization's highest achievement: the respect we hold and nurture for one another. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will necessarily include expositions of human wrong, but it is not, and was never meant to be, a genocide museum.

Critics who say this first national museum to be built outside Ottawa is just another chronicle of past injustices, are focusing too narrowly. The Museum's founders and planners, who include the late media baron Izzy Asper and his family, are devoted not only to mounting exhibits, many of them interactive, that document the past. They aso challenge visitors to become active participants in the evolution of human rights in Canada and abroad.

Indeed, one of the key themes is how we and our forbearers can avoid the repetition of injustices by a more profound understanding of history. The museum will seek to inspire debate and dialogue about human rights issues and challenges, leaving visitors with a sense of hope -- knowing that their actions can and will make a difference. We will also bring thousands of young Canadians to Winnipeg each year so some of them can become human rights stars back home.

I stress what the Museum is, and what it is not, to offer some perspective on the recent criticism of the enterprise. For example, it is claimed that the Museum will not attract many visitors because human rights is an abstract concept. This is the most damaging misconception about the project, because, in fact, there is absolutely nothing abstract or esoteric about its mission. It celebrates the human beings whose courage helped to make the world a better place and will chronicle the evil of some of the tyrants who sought to extinguish the flame of freedom. So let me cite some examples of the overwhelming human dimension of the museum.

How many Canadians know who Viola Desmond was? In 1946, years before Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the back of a bus in the U.S. South; Ms. Desmond refused to sit in the balcony seats reserved for blacks in a Halifax cinema. She was found guilty on a trumped up charge of buying a theatre ticket that was one cent short on tax. In 2010, Viola Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon by the Nova Scotia government. She deserves a place in the history of Canada -- and she, and many other Canadian human rights heroes, will get it here in Winnipeg.

How many Canadians know the names of the Famous Five, who won the right for women to vote --- Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards, and Irene Parlby?

How many Canadians know that the colour bar in major league baseball was broken when Jackie Robinson played in Montreal, where adoring fans cheered him, to prepare him for the ordeal of competing in New York, where he was jeered?

How many of us can name our five honourary Canadian citizens whose courage will be honoured in the Museum, and possibly with statues, stamps, and coins?

Raul Wallenberg, the only honourary Canadian who is not still alive, died in a Soviet gulag, after saving Jews in Hungary from Adolf Eichmann.

Nelson Mandela, whose spirit could not be broken during nearly 28 years on Robben Island, forgave his enemies and created a rainbow society. His cause was championed by prime ministers Diefenbaker, Pearson, Trudeau, Turner, and Mulroney. (When it comes to human rights, your party affiliation is irrelevant in this blessed land.)

Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, who has been invited to Ottawa by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to receive her honour, symbolizes the ultimate triumph of good over evil. The Dalai Lama is another living, breathing symbol of humankind's quest for justice and compassion.

Then we have the Aga Kahn, the philanthropist, spiritual leader of the peace-loving Ishmaeli people. When a tyrant began slaughtering Ismaelis in Uganda, Canada welcomed them -- and they, in turn, have made Canada a richer, more generous land.

The choice of these five to become honourary citizens shows that, while other nations tend to put warlords and explorers on their pedestals, we honour the peace-makers, and we honour them because we like to think that Canada, despite its many flaws, is a rainbow nation that reflects the best of the human spirit.

When the Museum opens in 2014, visitors will see a special gift to Canada from the government of India, the world's biggest democracy -- a statue of Ghandi, who developed the most powerful weapon for attaining human rights: non-violent resistance to tyranny.

Visitors will also see a relic of enormous historical value, a gift to Canada from Queen Elizabeth, who toured the construction site last year. Her Majesty's gift is the cornerstone at the Forks. It comes from Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was sealed by King John in 1215. That document was the precursor to modern constitutional democracy, the bedrock of the Rule of Law. Without the Magna Carta, human rights laws, declarations and charters as we know them might not exist today.

Special attention will be paid to how Canada abused the trust and confidence of our First Nations, and how innocent Japanese Canadians were interned in World War II. These stories will be told in the words of the victims. We will look at gender issues, the rights of persons with disabilities, sexual orientation, children's rights, women's equality, labour rights, poverty, racism, language rights, age, migrations and immigration.

Yet another important human element is the fact that the Museum will provide training for teachers, nurses, doctors, police, and the military in human rights and tolerance, and will welcome thousands of students every year through unique travel programs.

The critics suggest the Museum should not be built unless it authoritatively reflects all the human rights abuses known to humanity. Clearly that is impossible. But the project will deal with some of the most important holocausts, from the genocide of Jews by Hitler, whose goal was to wipe all Jews off the face of the earth, to Stalin's horrendous Holodomor, which cost the lives of millions of Ukrainians.

Then it is asserted that Winnipeg is an unsuitable venue because it is not -- like Washington, London, Paris, or Jerusalem -- one of the great global museum cities that attract knowledge-hungry tourists. Well, the critics said the same thing when the relatively obscure city of Bilbao in Spain was chosen as the site of what has become one of the most spectacular museums of the world. There is the Museum of Peace in Caen, France. Cooperstown, N.Y. was put on the map by the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. These are hardly urban metropolises.

All in all, as we witness new revolutions in which brave young people exploit the marvels of the Internet to reach for the human rights we take for granted, we hope the Canadian Museum for Human Rights will help to create an ever better spirit of harmony and mutual understanding at home and abroad.

There is no higher calling.

After all, as H.G.Wells told us, history is a contest between tyranny and education.