Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rights museum must perform balancing act

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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights hasn't opened yet, but it is already discovering some of the minefields it will face as it tries to tell the most sensitive stories in human history. One such unexpected explosive device occurred during events to mark International Women's Day, when history professor Veronica Strong-Boag wrote on the museum's website the Harper government had an "anti-woman record."

It was a sweeping and unsubstantiated editorial opinion, which Ms. Strong-Boag subsequently bolstered with a few details about how the Conservatives wouldn't support abortion in foreign countries, cancelled plans for a national daycare plan and cut funding to the Status of Women Canada. There was no context or historical background, and the museum decided the comments were overtly partisan and political. In any event, the professor's remarks weren't what was wanted when it invited writers to share stories on human-rights themes.

The national museum is not obliged to print or publicize every story submitted -- it is not a free-for-all where everything and anything goes -- but it was immediately accused of censorship, even cowardice, for removing the blog.

In response, the museum said it was not opposed to "fact-based commentary that raises concern about policies or activities of the Government of Canada. This is appropriate to the CMHR's mandate to encourage discussion and reflection on human rights."

It was an encouraging response, since the museum's work will inevitably involve questions about the conduct of sitting governments, including those in Ottawa, on Broadway and Main Street, as well as Tehran, Moscow and Beijing. But whether the seat of power is modern-day Ottawa or ancient Damascus, the pursuit of accuracy, the acknowledgment of grey areas and the recognition some facts are in dispute, must be paramount.

The museum should not be afraid of governments or political parties, but nor should it be a conduit for factionalism.

When it holds a panel discussion on a current issue, say the Palestinian question or women's history, the Harper government's record will be fair game, but the museum will merely be the convenor, not the judge.

Governments come and go, but hopefully the museum's pursuit of insight will be constant. It's a delicate balancing act. Mistakes will be made, but the journey is worth it.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 14, 2014 A8

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