25 November 2008

The human rights museum, the portrait gallery, and the Asper influence

One can be nothing less than overwhelmed at the federal government's extraordinary generosity toward the human rights museum proposed for Winnipeg. Ottawa is prepared to lavish $100-million on constructing the thing and $22-million a year thereafter to operate it. In addition, the Province of Manitoba will put up $40-million and the City of Winnipeg $20-million in the form of cash and in-kind donations. The proposed museum is depicted in all its gauzy glory in the adjacent photo.

Emphasizing the generosity of the federal government is its recent cancellation of plans for a national portrait gallery ostensibly to save money, even though the gallery would have cost a fraction as much as the human rights museum and a building was already available in Ottawa. And, unlike the museum, the portrait gallery would have focused on Canadiana -- a more appropriate spending of our tax dollars.

What, one wonders, is it about this proposed museum that so taps into the generosity of politicians? Is it their commitment to human rights? Do they just want to do something nice for Winnipeg? Possibly both of these things, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact it is a project of the Asper family who happen to own almost half the private mass media in the country. I suspect that as much as anything it reflects the power of media ownership.

Let's talk practical politics here. Could any party hope to assume power in Ottawa if it got on the wrong side of the owner of half the country's mass media? Not bloody likely. We saw Asper power in action when they bought out Conrad Black's Canadian media empire. The Aspers, it is well known, are ardent supporters of Israel and not hesitant in using their media to promote its interests. This affected Jean Chretien very little as he was a friend of Izzy Asper, but Paul Martin wasn't and when he became prime minister, the federal government hastily shifted gears on its Palestine policy, from a balanced approach to unequivocal support for Israel.

Justifying cancellation of plans for a national portrait gallery, Heritage Minister James Moore announced, "In this time of global economic instability, it is important that the federal government continue to manage its own affairs prudently and pragmatically." Who can doubt that it is anything less than "prudent and pragmatic" for the Conservative Party to curry favour with the Aspers.

1 comment:

  1. Another reason Harper is supportive is that it gave his government an opening to introduce Public Private Partnerships in the cultural sector. The Museum Act of Canada was amended to allow for this change:


    The CMHR was originally conceived and established by a charitable family foundation – the Asper Foundation.(16) On 20 April 2007, Prime Minister Harper announced the Government’s intention to provide financial support for the creation and maintenance of the CMHR after sufficient funds for its creation had been raised through the public and private sectors.(17) To date 80% of the necessary funding has been raised.(18) The first national museum to be located outside of the National Capital Region, the CMHR is to be built in Winnipeg. It will house the largest museum gallery in Canada devoted to the subject of the Holocaust.

    One of the goals of Canada’s museum policy is to facilitate the access of all Canadians to their cultural heritage.(19) A further objective is to contribute to the enrichment, management and preservation of representative collections in all regions by supporting museological research and development and by providing services throughout the country.(20) The earlier National Museums Corporation was criticized for concentrating national museums in the National Capital Region. The location of the CMHR in Winnipeg addresses this concern.

    Another goal of Canada’s museum policy is the decentralization of control through partnerships with other levels of government and with private interest groups.(21) Funding the creation of the CMHR facilities through a public-private partnership, together with the creation of an independent Crown corporation, meets this objective.

    One of the few criticisms of the bill is that the first director of the CMHR will be recommended by the minister of Canadian Heritage, Status of Women and Official Languages rather than by the board of trustees. For all other national museums the director is recommended by the minister-appointed board of trustees. This change in the selection process will thus give the minister the power to appoint both the board of trustees and the director. It is not yet known what effect this change will have on the initial control of the CMHR in comparison with other museums and whether it will affect control of the project and the museum by the Asper Foundation.