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Medisina at Politika by Dr. Rey Pagtakhan     

A community dream

An Izzy Asper Monument in an Immigrants Park at the Forks
Change of landscape

The parking lot across from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights at The Forks has captured the serious attention of two distinguished citizens and may well have started a public dialogue that could engage Winnipeggers, particularly those whose ancestors were immigrants and those of more recent waves of arrivals. A piece in the Winnipeg Free Press on May 29, “A park could honour immigrants” caught my eye.

His Worship Sam Katz, Mayor of Winnipeg, and Mr. Robert Vineberg, former Director-General of the Prairies and Northern Territories Region of Citizenship and Immigration Canada and now a Senior Fellow of the Canada West Foundation, are sold on the idea of landscaping the said parking space to make a community park.

In whose memory?

They differ, however, on who the proposed park should honour: the memory of one of the most illustrious sons of Manitoba – the late Israel (Izzy) Asper who placed our city, province and country on the world map with his vision of the above-noted Museum that is near realization – or, alternatively, the collective memory of “countless immigrants who, since the Red River settlers two centuries ago, have built this city and this province.” His Worship has apparently suggested the former; the erstwhile Regional Director General of Immigration Canada has advanced the latter.

I discern their competing proposals are of equal or nearly equal strength! Should we honour one well-known Manitoban who had done a lot for many citizens and institutions in our community or honour the countless many who have done a lot for one great province and city? That is the question, indeed. You can almost say we cannot lose either way.

Physical and spiritual linkage

Mr. Vineberg has astutely observed both the physical and the spiritual linkage between the Museum for Human Rights and the history of early Winnipeg immigrant settlers who escaped persecution in their birthplace that they might live in freedom and human dignity on Canadian soil. While this linkage makes the proposition to carve a community park out of the existing parking lot that much more persuasive and gives his proposal an edge, the question – in whose memory should the park be dedicated? – remains not completely answered based simply on this consideration.

We all know that endless debate on the two options when presented with two competing visions of equal or nearly equal value may ultimately derail both sides, but sincere dialogue often leads to the emergence of a complementary approach that unifies the essence of both.

Example of a tool

As an example, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the sixties (convened in 1963 and published its final report in 1969) eventually led to Canada adopting its multiculturalism, not biculturalism, policy – the world’s first such national policy when adopted in 1971 – within a bilingual framework. It has since been a defining character of our Canadian identity with its value enshrined in the Canadian Constitution itself. And immigrants have been very welcoming of this policy – we only have to experience the annual Winnipeg Folklorama Festival.

I use this as one example of a tool used to find an imaginative solution to a seeming dilemma on competing public questions – especially when ethnic, racial, religious and cultural diversity issues are a consideration – to illustrate what can be achieved when a nationwide consultation with citizens is allowed to prosper.

Citywide conversation

Bringing this one example of approach to policy making to the twin questions of the parking lot becoming a community park and to whom it shall be dedicated, I suggest holding a Winnipeg-wide dialogue if we sincerely want to receive the broadest citizenry feedback. I further suggest that, meanwhile, those interested in the issue share their thoughts on the subject with their city councillors, the members of the Executive Committee and the Mayor himself since His Worship has apparently already raised the idea in public.

Even as I pledge to listen intently when this two-faceted issue continues to be publicly discussed, I say that I agree in the first instance with the proposition to create such a community park at The Forks. My view dovetails with the viewpoints of both the Mayor and the former Regional Director-General.

History of our people

In the second instance, I subscribe to the idea – more specifically akin to that advanced by Mr. Vineberg – of dedicating such a new park to our early settlers, thereby giving their descendants a deeper sense of pride. At the same time, more recent immigrants of today and those of tomorrow will feel very much valued.

Imagine an Immigrants Park at The Forks!

Not only would such a public park dedicated to the collective memory of our immigrant ancestors continually remind us “of the key role Winnipeg played in populating the West,” but it would also be a constant inspiration to all of us – ever feeling that sense of belonging and being welcomed to our new homeland – to continually engage ourselves in community and citizenry building to which our immigrant ancestors offered their new-found life. Indeed, we all will easily identify with the history of our people when visiting The Forks.

Izzy Asper Monument in Immigrants Park at The Forks

Mayor Katz has apparently suggested, “the parking lot…be used for a park in honour of Israel Asper,” to which I concur. How then may I reconcile the two competing visions – Katz’ and Vineberg’s – of equal value?

“Conscious of the many contributions of Izzy Asper – and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights would no doubt be one of his most lasting legacies and public signatures – and mindful that my proposition has yet to be courteously cleared with the Asper family, I propose with all due respects that we erect a monument to honour Izzy Asper in such an Immigrants Park vis-a-vis the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. I had the singular official privilege, as a Minister of the Crown at the time, to hear and feel first-hand from him his dedication to human rights and his passion to erecting the Museum.

Imagine an Izzy Asper Monument in the Immigrants Park at The Forks!

A community dream? Such a setting would dually reflect his deep social conscience and reinforce the historic and continuing role of immigrants in the building and renewal of our nation. Knowing the history of the past makes us better authors of our future history.

I have added my voice to the public conversation. May we hear yours in dialogue?

Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan, former lung specialist and Professor of Pediatrics, Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Jean Chretien and senior federal minister, is widely published and lectured in Medicine and Politics and has been the recipient of several awards and honours, including the honorary degrees Doctor of Laws and Doctor of Science,the Philippines’ Presidential Citation Pamana ng Pilipino Award,and the Governor-General Queen Elizabeth II Silver, Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals.

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