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Secrecy Surrounds Federal “Human Rights” Museum

April 07, 2014
Secrecy Surrounds Federal “Human Rights” Museum

I hope the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights is a success when its doors open later this year.

It’s true the Canadian Taxpayers Federation advocated for a different approach to funding the museum – taking the tax dollars set aside for the museum and giving it back to the people; empowering you to decide for yourself if you wanted to make a voluntary donation or not. This is the same approach we take for other non-essential projects; things like stadiums and arenas for pro athletes.

But obviously we lost that battle. The government has pumped over $170 million into building the museum. Given that so many tax dollars have been spent on the project, hopefully it’s a success, leading to more tourism for the province.

However, as it’s a government-run museum, it needs to be accountable to the public. The federal government has been subsidizing the museum’s operations for years and will eventually hit an annual subsidy of $21.7 million per year (it may have already hit that level, I'm not sure.)

A recent information response from the federal government reveals there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to being up front with the public on this project.

  

The Documents

Back in January 2012, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation filed what is known as an Access to Information request with the federal government. We asked for:

Please provide any correspondence, briefing notes, memos or other correspondence on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights' need for bridge financing, challenges related to private sector donations (potential defaults, the timing of such donations, etc.) or cost overruns with the project. Documents should go back three years from January 7, 2012."

On April 2, 2014, more than two years later, we received a response. For those who aren’t familiar with the process, the government is supposed to respond with the information within 30 days. However, when large volumes of information are handed over, it’s often common for governments to take an extra 30 days or so.

Two years though? That’s just embarrassing.

The other big picture problem with the response is that a significant amount of information was completely ‘blacked out’ or removed completely. One would think the government would be upfront with the public about a ‘human rights’ museum of all projects.

Here are a few nuggets from the material that I noticed after taking a quick look (you can see the massive file I referenced by clicking here):

1) When politicians and dignitaries gathered for the museum’s sod turning ceremony at the Forks on December 19, 2008, it’s quite likely they already knew the price tag would rise to $310 million; the public was under the impression it was a $265 million project.

On page 14 of the government docs is a copy of a letter from the Chair of the Museum’s board (just four days after the sod turning) that noted the project would be an extra $45 million over budget:

“As you are aware, due to construction cost escalation and LEED certified design additions, the Museum requires an additional $45 million in capital funds…”

On page 381 is a note that seems to suggest the government may have known as early as October of 2008.

Proponents of the museum will probably argue the first job of the new museum board was to determine the true cost and update the $265 million estimate. I’ve heard that claim before. However, it seems disingenuous for proponents to know the price tag of $310 million, hold a press conference to announce a sod turning and not disclose that news to the public for another five months.

2) On page 216 is something really odd. In fact, it appears in a few different parts of the documents. The government discloses that $100 million for the project comes from the federal government; $30 million from Western Economic Diversification and $70 million from a federal source it refuses to disclose. Why hide it?

Provincially, there was an uproar several years ago when taxpayers learned MPI, Manitoba Hydro and other crowns put in $1 million each for the project; plus $500,000 from the Workers Compensation Board (if memory serves me correctly.)

Have the feds taken money from somewhere controversial? Via Rail, Canada Post or another crown perhaps? Have gas tax dollars gone towards the museum? It’s odd the government would black something like that out.

3) Page 581 lists provincial funding for the project. It looks like the governments of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have committed $100,000 and $50,000 respectively. The CTF has previously reported that the government of Ontario has committed $5 million, but aside from that, details for the other provinces has been blacked out.

Of interest, back in 2011 the CTF asked for and received information about funding from other provinces. The response we received did not include the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia contributions.

4) Throughout the documents you can see the tone change with the federal government as it started to try and put its foot down harder and harder towards more funding requests for the museum. That being said, it’s hard to piece the whole situation together as so much of the information is simply blacked out.

5) On p. 1117 you’ll find the new Memorandum of Understanding between the fundraising arm of the museum and the federal government. I want to go through it a bit more closely, but if you happen to spot anything let me know…

On a final note, it's great that a large portion of funding for this project came from voluntary, private donations. It's my understanding that wasn't the case for other federal musuems when they were constructed. 

Yet, every time the government refuses to release basic information about the project, it tarnishes the undertaking; an effort that many volunteers and donors have worked hard to support.

The ball is in your court governments - keep dribbling out information with this project or be open about what's going on?

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