White elephants

I was born and raised in Winnipeg. I’m a Winnipegger. I’ve left the city in search of bluer skies and greener pastures a few times now—and returned every time, knowing the bluest skies, the greenest pastures are those of home.

Still, I prefer to glare at this town—once, long ago considered the Chicago of the North—with clear-glass frames. And what I see is a sprawling suburban mess; a hodgepodge of municipal misadventures; a testament to bad civic planning, and even worse political decisions.

Consider Portage Place Mall: the solution to downtown decay. Because a shopping mall located downtown, in the late eighties, just before Big Box Stores would forever change the nature of retail, would surely reverse the downward slide of Winnipeg’s downtown life—especially when the construction of said mall would result in the demolition of an entire city block of turn-of-the-century heritage buildings. Bravo, Winnipeg.

And how did that work out? As well as you might expect: today, the mall boasts Staples as its largest tenant—and to fill space, the mall has taken to leasing (or perhaps even donating) retail space to inner-city not-for-profit art programs and other support groups. This, of course, only reinforces the mall’s sterling reputation as the most expensive drop-in center in Western Canada.

Naturally, because it’s always smart to throw good money after bad, Manitoba Hydro (a Crown Corporation) spent over one quarter of one billion dollars on new downtown headquarters across the street from this retail failure—in part to shore up the North Portage experiment. Have retailers decided to give Portage Place a second look now that Hydro’s thousands of employees are stationed across the street? Chortle.

Speaking of retail, one only has to drive down Route 90 (which used to be a quick way to zip northward around the western edge of the city to the airport) to see why people wouldn’t bother making the trek downtown to Portage Place. The plethora of shopping options along this strip of suburban Hell is truly extraorindary. All the more so now that the long-awaited IKEA has opened its doors.

Yes, by the grace of millions of dollars in public money for the necessary road realignments, and thanks to the hands of tens of thousands of foreign labourers, Winnipeggers now have the chance to wander through our very own Swedish labyrinth of modular furniture and angular accessories, taking comfort in the knowledge they no longer have to suffer the indignity of catalogue shopping and international shipping.

And oh what a sight the IKEA store is with its signpost standing as tall as the Statue of Liberty!

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses!

The hysteria surrounding the opening of this store was palpable; the free coverage on supper-hour news programs for weeks leading up to the ribbon-cutting more valuable than any advertising campaign the company could have mounted; the opening ceremony itself, which was attended by the Premier of Manitoba and included a ceremonial blessing by Aboriginal Elders, jumping the proverbial shark.

Honestly, have Winnipeggers no shame? The answer: the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. In other words: no, none at all.

CMHRYes, the CMHR takes the cake as the greatest of all of Winnipeg’s white elephants—and surely is the most expensive, ostentatious and truly outrageous among them.

Still unfinished, this building will surely stand as an eternal monument to a well-meaning, but fundamentally flawed idea doused with the gasoline of hundreds of millions in public money and next-to-no long-term thinking or serious debate surrounding its purpose or even existence; the match, once lit, sparking a firestorm of controversy, confusion and, naturally, demands for even more public money.

If only the idea were sound: alas, even if the “museum” was on-time and on-budget (neither remotely being the case), it would still remain a building with a nebulous purpose at the best of times, utterly Kafka-esque at its worst. From the organization’s own website, we get this drivel:

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is envisioned to be a national and international destination, a centre of learning where Canadians and people from around the world can engage in discussion and commit to taking action against hate and oppression.


Only by following the tragi-comedy unfold on the pages and screens of Winnipeg’s media (the only news outlets with a sustained interested in this supposedly national museum, the only one outside the National Capital Region) does one get a better understanding of what this boondoggle is supposed to be about.

Initially, the museum was supposed to showcase human atrocities of the 20th century (the Holocaust chief among them). This, predictably, set off an incredibly exciting, fit-for-television competition between various ethnic and cultural groups about who among them had suffered the most and how many square-feet that suffering should warrant on the floors of the museum. Museum officials, during the protracted debacle, seemed genuinely stunned by the outpouring of… frustration by community groups. Evidently, an afternoon googling “human rights,” and some napkin sketches do not a curatorial plan make.

However, after an exodus of staff, the museum brass decided to take a happier tack; instead of wallowing in various miseries and misfortunes, the museum is now purported to be pursuing a more celebratory, patriotic tone about Canada’s supposed moral leadership on the matter of human rights.

And what better place to celebrate Canada’s accomplishments in this regard than in a city with some of the highest rates of poverty in the country! The highest murder rate per capita! Shocking rates of unemployment and homelessness amongst the city’s Aboriginal residents! Hooray for Canada!

I, for one, feel so much better knowing generations of Winnipeg school children—because why would school children from any other city in Canada take a trip to Winnipeg when they can go to Ottawa and hit up every other national museum, not to mention Parliament and the Supreme Court, in one shot—will be paraded through this bastion of historical revisionism all while being quickly shepherded past the homeless people milling about just down the street.

Brilliant! Bravo! The only thing that could make this story better would be if the museum, in an effort to raise even more money, started selling t-shirts made in foreign sweatshops. Oh wait… THAT ALREADY HAPPENED.

Is there hope for this city, my hometown? It’s hard to remain optimistic when public money is given to a evangelical Christian recruitment centre across the street from Thunderbird House; when streets are named in honour of shills for suburban developers; when Winnipeggers’ first instinct whenever public land becomes available is WATER PARK; when a whopping 3.6-kilometre bus lane is touted as a rapid transit system; when every major civic decision is seemingly made not in the public interest, but for the property taxes.

I have but three words: one great city.

  1. shaun said:

    oh quit your bitching…

    to no end can i describe how offensive i find the ikea sign.

    the retail sprawl does not benefit our city one iota…
    it creates shit jobs and whatever money is made is tunneled directly to retail HQ which are not in Winnipeg.
    the damage that the city’s infrastructure bears as a result of the traffic will far outweigh any marginal benefit that may exist with these retail “power” centers.

    that being said, whats your solution to all this? its too easy to point the obvious, kris. you know better than that

    • krisade said:

      Quite right. Because it’s the job of a lowly cook to solve the world’s problems!

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