From a distance, the work of art looks like a blanket of crude terra cotta beads, strung together and cascading three stories down the inside wall of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
“Look more closely,” encourages tour guide Montana Lehmann. My family and I see that each bead in Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore’s “Trace” is a lump of Red River clay. There are 14,000 in all, each fisted and squeezed by individuals, hardened and bound together as a collective statement. It shows how a few minutes of shared time can be built into something formidable.
The national museum opened in 2014 at the Forks in Winnipeg, a centuries-old meeting place of tribes and cultures where the Assiniboine River joins the Red River as it flows north from the Minnesota-North Dakota border.
Inspired in part by the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., the human rights museum has drawn global recognition for its architecture and wide-ranging exhibits that begin in dark lower levels. It progresses story by story, following illuminated alabaster walkways that zig and zag up through 12 galleries and eight levels, toward the light that spills in through upper levels. Its windowed, angled exterior was designed like stylized, symbolic dove wings that wrap the building as it rises from restored prairie.
On a long weekend in Manitoba’s capital, it stirs our hearts and minds as a soothing tonic of hope, and an inspirational nudge during divisive times.
The statement, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” covers one full wall. Some topics fit what you expect: A temporary exhibit follows Nelson Mandela’s harrowing battle against apartheid, with a replica of his prison cell. A Holocaust exhibit shows how Germany’s state-run media inflamed fears and racism during World War II, leading to the extermination of Jewish families and other citizens. Newspaper clips reflect hate. Photos portray bulldozed piles of concentration-camp corpses.
The museum shines the most in going beyond well-known stories, in peeling back layers on overlooked genocides such as the Ukrainian Holodomor famine and highlighting what’s happened in Canada and the United States both historically and in this century. The countries share oppressions of native tribes, blacks, factory workers, ethnic groups and disabled people.
Scenes of war flash across screens in the vast Canadian Journeys gallery, where visitors walk the perimeter lined with alcoves, each telling a different story. Red dresses eerily hang from a stark forest, symbolizing the higher rate of abuse, sex trafficking and disappearance for native women. Cubes filled with photos of smiling same-sex couples stack up like a wedding cake, a reminder that the freedom to love has only been legal nationally since 2005 in Canada, 2015 in the United States. Another alcove tells the story of Viola Desmond, who lost her hair salon after refusing to leave the whites-only section of a movie theater.
There is so much to absorb that we return a second day to focus on current events such as mass immigrations, and watch a film on social media and its influence on girls and their self-image. A red prom dress and tuxedo worn by teens from Georgia’s Wilcox County High School represents its first racially integrated prom — in 2014. An outspoken student, who encouraged peers to wear pink shirts as a sign of solidarity for a boy being bullied, sparked Canada’s Pink Shirt Day, now a national movement.
One person’s strength — even a child’s — in speaking out or standing up can multiply like the fists on the clay artwork. It can spur change, and despite the harrowing tales within the museum’s walls, we leave feeling lighter and hopeful.
For pure fun, go early to the Assiniboine Zoo’s “Journey to Churchill” exhibit when 10 resident polar bears — rescued orphans from near the town on Hudson Bay — are most active. You can get nose-to-nose as they swim alongside and above visitors in clear tunnels. Seeing the enormity of paws, the swirl of thick fur and water bubbles made us want to smuggle in a lawn chair and stay all day. Playful Arctic seals zip around a second clear tunnel. A Polar Bear Conservation Centre also offers a look at research efforts and climate change, and a polar-themed playground keeps younger kids happy (assiniboineparkzoo.ca/zoo).
The 50th Festival du Voyageur, the largest outdoor winter celebration in western Canada, brings together musicians (Métis, Cajun, French and bluegrass), dancing, food, voyageur and First Nations history, heritage crafts, an international snow sculpture symposium, a beard contest and maple syrup treats Feb. 15-24 (heho.ca/en).
Visitors can rent skates at the Forks for one of the world’s longest skating trails, which follows the Assiniboine River and parts of the Red River. Imaginative, competitively designed warming huts usually appear by mid-January (theforks.com).
Enigma Escapes features close to a dozen themed escape rooms and sells some of its challenges and designs to U.S. escape rooms (1-204-219-0014; enigmaescapes.com).
Where to eat
The museum serves local whitefish, Manitoba jambalaya, poutine and vegan options at its ERA Cafe. It’s also an easy stroll to the Forks marketplace where you can watch vendors make wood-fired pizzas, fish and chips, poutine and butter chicken wrapped in naan, or scoop treats such as London fog ice cream flavored with bergamot (theforks.com).
Head across the river from the museum to St. Boniface French Quarter for flaky buttery deliciousness at La Belle Baguette (labellebaguette.ca).
Where to sleep
Three noteworthy accommodations sit within a 15-minute walk of the museum: Inn at the Forks, a modern luxury boutique hotel with a spa (1-204-942-6555; innforks.com), Mere Hotel with 67 swanky rooms along the riverfront (1-204-594-0333; merehotel. com) and the grand 1913 chateau-style Fort Garry Hotel, which features a spa and coed Turkish bath (1-204-942-8251; fortgarryhotel.com).
Follow Interstate 94 from the Twin Cities to Fargo, then north on I-29 as it parallels the Red River across the Canadian border and into Winnipeg. The drive takes about seven hours, and you’ll need your passport.
Tourism Winnipeg can be reached at 1-855-734-2489 or tourismwinnipeg.com. Travel Manitoba operates a visitor center at the Forks, 1-800-665-0040, travelmanitoba.com.
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”