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Museum's good intentions undone by battle over blog

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John Woods / THE CANADIAN PRESS files 
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights opens in September. Its missteps give critics more reason to be skeptical.

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John Woods / THE CANADIAN PRESS files The Canadian Museum for Human Rights opens in September. Its missteps give critics more reason to be skeptical.

If recent events are any indication, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights could be the best thing to happen to journalism in this town since the Winnipeg Jets returned.

Yet another scandal has enveloped the museum, scheduled to open in September. This time involving allegations museum staff censored a historian by refusing to post a blog she wrote for International Women's Day.

The post by Trent University Prof. Veronica Strong-Boag, was commissioned by the CMHR, but was removed on March 4 from the museum's website.

In the post, Strong-Boag described the federal Conservative government as having an "anti-woman record." This was deemed by CMHR staff to be "partisan and political" and thus inappropriate for the blog.

Even so, this decision once again raises concerns the CMHR is open to interference from its political masters. This has been the predominant concern of critics who have predicted, since the first shovel went in the ground, the museum would fail spectacularly.

In the Internet age, it is tough to see this decision as censorship; in fact, Strong-Boag wasted little time in posting a version of her post online. In addition, the controversy has only helped this post gain notoriety it would have never enjoyed on its own.

The real question here is why the museum was unable to reach a compromise with the author, or just run the blog post as is. Again, staff say they did try to negotiate some changes to the post, but found them unsatisfactory. In failing to find some sort of middle ground, however, the museum has manufactured yet another self-inflicted wound.

How close was the compromise? A look at the CMHR's blog reveals it already has quite a bit of political content. There are posts about the racism faced by black railway porters in Canada, the rape and torture of Filipina women by Japanese soldiers, the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Muslim women living in Quebec who are fighting to protect their right to wear a hijab, and the 40th anniversary of Manitoba's first same-sex marriage.

All these issues are essentially political in nature. If not in this country, then certainly somewhere else.

However, the major difference between Strong-Boag's post and the ones that were successfully published is that, in the latter case, the content did not explicitly criticize any one person or government.

For example, the blog on Muslim women in Quebec is written by an academic who started an awareness program to explain the cultural and religious significance of the hijab. It did not mention, explicitly, Quebec's proposed Charter of Values, which would ban the wearing of "conspicuous" religious attire such as the hijab. Even so, there is little doubt the post is a commentary on that proposed law.

Is that approach direct enough to be effective in broaching human rights? It better be, because there are abuses that need combatting.

All over the world -- in developed and developing countries alike -- human rights are under attack. Not by terrorists or criminal organizations, but by the governments of those countries.

In the United States alone, there have been in the last year laws introduced to limit voter participation, force visible minorities to produce identification papers on demand, prohibit people from signing up for subsidized health insurance and permit business owners to refuse service to gays and lesbians.

Following the Sochi Olympics, we know about Russia's anti-gay propaganda law, and Ugandan anti-gay laws that carry life prison sentences.

In Canada, we still have concerns about unsolved slayings and disappearances of aboriginal women, and even a dispute in Manitoba over a demand by the province that gay-straight support groups be accommodated in schools.

The blog flap suggests many of these issues, especially those touching Canadian politics and policy, may never be tackled in the museum proper. That suggestion is still mostly premature.

The CMHR has said every issue and incident with a human rights angle will ultimately be eligible for discussion. Preliminary details about museum content support that assertion. There are historical and current Canadian human rights issues slated for inclusion in museum exhibits and events. Still, we only know the subject areas; the actual museum content remains a mystery.

The CMHR believes it can avoid allegations of political or partisan manipulation by ensuring all sides of an issue are included in content or events. That, the museum curators believe, is a fair and solid foundation for a frank discussion of human rights.

The CMHR's intentions are ambitious and admirable, but as we have seen once again, they are easily undone by missteps such as the blog battle.

There is a theory at work at the museum that if they can just make it to September, then people will see for themselves concerns about sanitized content are unfounded.

However, a repetition of this kind of mess may deafen a lot of ears long before the doors are open.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 14, 2014 0

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