The van in front finally pulled away, making it my turn to methodically approach the gatehouse window with the Airstream in tow. But nobody was home. Leah noticed an outstretched arm extended from a raised window a dozen feet forward, and it was waving me closer. I inched parallel to the higher window, and awkwardly offered our documents.
“You realize you’re in the wrong line?” he criticized.
“There was no sign,” I responded sheepishly.
“Take off your sunglasses,” he ordered. “Where are you going and what’s your purpose?”
“We’re on our way to Winnipeg to celebrate Bastille Day,” I announced.
“Bastille Day, huh! So you’re up for a couple of days?” he barked.
“Actually longer, about four weeks,” I offered. “We’re here to tour your beautiful country… drive across to Calgary and visit Banff and Jasper before returning to the States.”
“You carrying any drugs, alcohol, guns, ammunition?”
“You ever visit Canada before?”
“We were in Alaska last summer and crossed over to Yukon.”
“How much money you carrying?”
“About a thousand dollars.”
“Enjoy your stay,” he stated dryly, handing back our passports.
We were immediately reminded of driving in a foreign country when the road signs posted maximum speed limits in km, and the bi-lingual billboards promoted it products in French.
“How do you know how fast you’re going,” Leah posed?
“I have a button on the steering wheel,” I bragged, pushing the button. “And it automatically makes the adjustment on the display. Voila!”
“So cool,” Leah deadpanned.
The Bastille Day ritual was being held au petit jardin de sculptures beside the old City Hall-turned tourism center/art gallery in the Franco-friendly Winnipeg ward of St. Boniface. Children with painted faces played with balloons, while parents drank wine and ate smelly cheese poured over stale-crusted bread. A trio played behind a chanteuse doing an Edith Piaf impression, and the mood was festive. We left early, thinking the celebration was anti-climactic.
The ride home took us across the Red River, where we previewed a hulking structure that is Canada’s newest national museum, and Winnipeg’s newest tourist attraction and controversy.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, completed in 2014, sits atop the Forks–long considered sacred ancestral soil by the Aboriginals, and part of Treaty One Territory. Instantly, the site selection sparked passionate criticism from Aboriginal elders, who argued for more time after 400,000-plus artifacts were discovered during initial ground-breaking and subsequent archaeological excavation.
Protests continued throughout construction by advocacy groups who perceived that inadequate exhibition space would never address the scope of one group’s suffering, while other advocates claimed that another group whose misery was elevated to a higher status was granted more square footage than deserved.
And to complete the spectrum, there were activists who were bitter that some atrocities were being ignored, and consequently delegitimized. One group felt disrespected after learning that their group’s exhibition space was adjacent to the rest rooms.
Then there were critics who had ideologically opposed the architecture design, likening it to a modern Tower of Babel. But veteran planner Antoine Predock defended the symbolism behind his vision:
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is rooted in humanity, making visible in the architecture the fundamental commonality of humankind-a symbolic apparition of ice, clouds and stone set in a field of sweet grass. Carved into the earth and dissolving into the sky on the Winnipeg horizon, the abstract ephemeral wings of a white dove embrace a mythic stone mountain of 450 million year old Tyndall limestone in the creation of a unifying and timeless landmark for all nations and cultures of the world.
A dozen galleries stretch between alabaster ramps acting as spears of light connecting the void of black-washed canyon walls.
The alabaster bridges provide needed tranquility time to survive the intensity of the previous gallery and avoid potential human-condition overload.
The galleries are immense shadow boxes for interpretive technology…
meaningful art installations…
and traditional prose…
In hindsight, I would start the “trek of travesty” at the top, and wind my way down the “ramps of reflection”–much like the Guggenheim Museum in NYC…
until I reached the Garden of Contemplation on level 3, where hexagonal rocks of basalt buttress placid pools of water,
catching surreal reflections,
under a towering canopy of limestone, steel, and glass.
On the other hand, by cruising the museum “upside down”, visitors may lose sight of the painful journey endured by the many who struggled for acceptance and equality. And skipping the Tower of Hope is a missed opportunity to circle the observation deck, with its expansive view of Riel Esplanade and more.
Winnipeg is a city in transition seeking to compete on a national stage, while coming to terms with disaffected Aboriginal people who represent 10% of the local population. Fortunately, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights can be called upon to remind us of the importance of awareness, critical thinking, and reconciliation.