October 19, 2020

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Broken mandate in its wake, CMHR wanders into white elephant territory

Opinion

So much for being the catalyst of change on human rights issues.

After nearly six years of operation, the Winnipeg-based Canadian Museum for Human Rights seems to be spending more time defending itself against charges of racism, homophobia and a lack of diversity in the workplace than it has promoting respect and dignity for marginalized people.

The CMHR pledged when it opened its doors in 2014 it would be an agent of change to help build more equitable communities. The national museum would not only tell the unvarnished stories of human rights struggles and atrocities from around the world, it would stand as a shining example of how institutions can promote equality from within.

That hasn’t worked out so well.

Former and current museum staff recently revealed they were forced by management to conduct tours for student groups that excluded LGBTTQ+ content.

Some schools didn’t want their students to see those exhibits, and asked museum organizers not to show them during tours. For an admitted two-year period, starting in 2015, the museum complied.

It’s not the first time the CMHR has been accused of violating its own stated principles.

It agreed to censor its own content. It suppressed information about human rights violations against certain groups of people, in order to accommodate the homophobic views of some school officials. What a disgrace.

Winnipeg's first openly gay mayor, Glen Murray, called it a "betrayal of its mandate," and resigned Thursday from the board of the Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (the fundraising arm of the CMHR).

On Friday, the museum's executive team, led by chief operating officer John Young, issued a public apology.

"This practice was wrong and was ended. This practice is contrary to the Museum's mandate, and contrary to everything we stand for as a museum for human rights. For breaking the trust that was extended to us by the (LGBTTQ+) community, our visitors, our staff and volunteers, our members and donors, and for the hurt and harm this betrayal has caused, we apologize. We failed in our responsibility as leaders."

The most recent skeleton in the museum's closet makes a mockery of the mission statement the organization trotted out in 2008, when it introduced the concept of a human rights museum to Canadians: "The museum will not shy away from controversy; it will recognize and present the wide variety of legitimate perspectives on sensitive issues fairly and openly and will embrace constructive public debate."

It’s not the first time the CMHR has been accused of violating its own stated principles.

Current and former staff have in recent weeks painted the museum as an institution rife with racism, and complained management has for years turned a blind eye to it. Black, Indigenous and other people of colour who have worked at the national museum say they’ve been the subject of racist comments and actions from within, and senior management has refused to address the issue.

It hardly measures up to another guiding principle issued in 2008: "The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will inspire, challenge and touch people emotionally in the manner by which it promotes respect, understanding and an awareness of the role that each individual can play in furthering the dignity and rights of all citizens of the world."

Museum officials say they plan to hire a consultant firm to audit the workplace and develop an action plan. They need someone from the outside to help them cleanse the racist culture from their own organization.

Despite lip service by the museum that one of its goals is to promote diversity in the workplace, a study last year found there was only one person of colour among 26 in senior managerial and executive positions at the CMHR.

So what value are taxpayers’ getting from this federal Crown corporation? Has it really been a catalyst for change in breaking down barriers for marginalized people and lifting the silence around racism and homophobia?

There’s little evidence of that. In fact, the government agency appears to be perpetuating the same toxic environment seen in many other institutions.

Taxpayers are dumping more than $25 million a year into CMHR operations (up from $21.7 million three years ago); museum costs continue to escalate; staffing alone has increased 11.6 per cent over the past three years (to $13.5 million); general admission revenues have declined to $1.4 million (from $1.76 million) during the same period.

According to the Crown corporation’s 2018-19 annual report, the CMHR will need a funding increase to pay for capital replacement of facility equipment and IT infrastructure.

If the museum is betraying its own mandate, as Winnipeg’s former mayor has charged, why are we still financing this high-priced institution?

Maybe it’s time to defund the CMHR and redirect those tax dollars to areas where they can truly help the disadvantaged and marginalized.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

   Read full biography

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