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Museum flagged by audit

Lack of federal attention threatened to curtain exhibits; officials say issues resolved

This article was published 30/5/2018 (851 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — The federal government was neglecting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights just as financial pressures threatened to scale back its exhibits last year, according to an audit tabled in Parliament.

Auditors were concerned by the lack of federal attention to the museum, which reached a critical point during the audit period, spanning August, 2016, to May, 2017. At the time, the museum was "facing funding uncertainties that might necessitate a reduction of the museum’s offerings to the public," auditors wrote, "and therefore its ability to meet its mandate."

Ottawa has since boosted its funding, and the museum’s programming vice-president, Angela Cassie, stresses that departmental officials are regularly in touch with the museum.

The finding was one among a series of concerns documented in the audit tabled on Tuesday.  Others included displaying inaccurate information, giving employees "unsustainable amounts of work," and lacking detailed plans to prevent cyber-attacks. 

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS </p><p>Among problems the audit found were mislabelled pieces to certain exhibits.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Among problems the audit found were mislabelled pieces to certain exhibits.

Dusan  Duvnjak, the principal investigator for the audit,  found the museum struggled to do long-term planning since it opened in September 2014, leaving staff working overtime.

"As a new Crown corporation, there’s a certain amount of learning to be had in the first few years," Duvnjak said.

CMHR officials said on Wednesday the Winnipeg museum is now much more stable, and they used the audit to rectify a slew of problems in the museum’s management and operation.

Funding has been restored after issues were flagged in the audit, official said.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Funding has been restored after issues were flagged in the audit, official said.

Cassie said exhibits are now being planned three to five years in the future, and they’re working on temporary exhibits they can put up in the top and bottom floors for a year.

"Being the sole human rights museum in the world, there’s not a stockpile of human-rights exhibitions we could just pull from," she said.

And when they did, they had problems — auditors found inaccurate information displayed to the public.

CMHR Chief Financial Officer Susanne Robertson said that occurred during the exhibit "1867: Rebellion & Confederation," which was on loan to Winnipeg until May 2017 from the Canadian Museum of History, which sits within walking distance of Ottawa. "There was a mislabel provided to us" by that museum, Robertson said.

"It was caught immediately after opening and was corrected. It was a text label that was actually put in the wrong place."

Cassie said, in another case, a timeline that included the philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas did not properly show him in an illustration. Cassie couldn’t recall the specifics but it involved the cropping of a picture that included another person.

Both came up during "a robust remediation" in which staff and experts try to fact-check every piece of information, as well as curatorial details such as scuffed paint, projection angles and accents on words. At its opening, CMHR spotted 1,000 issues to resolve, 75 which remained at the time of the audit period.

"We received some great suggestions through this special examination, and through our own lessons learned, so that will just strengthen our process moving forward."

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The audit also noted a lack of policies and procedures to prevent cyberhacking.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The audit also noted a lack of policies and procedures to prevent cyberhacking.

The audit also chided Ottawa for allowing CMHR’s board of directors to atrophy from 11 trustees to four, though it was bolstered by others who offered to serve beyond their terms, which is permitted under federal laws.

"Vacancies make it more difficult for the board to include all the skills and experience it needs to fulfill its responsibilities; furthermore, staggered terms of office help to foster continuity as new trustees adapt to their roles," auditors wrote.

On Friday, four new directors will join the board, putting it at 10 of 11 positions, with just one trustee, Wilton Littlechild, serving past their term. The vacant position is for the vice-chair, which became vacant when Pauline Rafferty was named chair last December.

The museum had filed annual corporate plans to Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, but the only one Ottawa had ever ratified was under her predecessor in 2014, leaving the board without guidance on how to navigate risks and challenges.

Cassie insists it wasn’t a case of Ottawa bureaucrats ignoring a faraway museum.

"There is a uniqueness in being outside the national capital region," she admits, but says federal conferences, multi-party support and ministers’ visits "demonstrate that there is a commitment, and a level of engagement and awareness of the museum."

Both Robertson and Duvnjak noted that the federal Liberals changed the appointment process for various boards and tribunals, a move that others have attributed to court delays and slow-moving bureaucracy.

In this spring’s budget, the federal Liberals put up $35 million for the museum, effectively replenishing funding that was supposed to start declining over six years starting this spring.

"That's the best way to support the long-term operations of the museum," Joly told the Free Press. "Now that they have that money, they'll be able to work on a long-term strategy."

Robertson said the museum should be on its own feet shortly, with the help of its fundraising group, Friends of the CMHR. Until 2022, that group expects to still be collecting part of the $150 million in pledges it secured for construction of the actual building, at which point it will be able to help support the museum’s daily operations.

Sen. Patricia Bovey has spent decades in the museology sector, and has assisted with federal audits of museums. To her, CMHR’s first audit is a baseline to compare its progress in five years, and it’s encouraging that auditors found no major management issues.

"They've had to evolve from an institution that was in pre-mode, opening mode, start-up mode, to a mature institution that has established policies, principles, procedures, review and risk-management," she said.

Bovey said the former Conservative government’s heritage minister, St. Boniface MP Shelly Glover, had exerted too much influence on the museum, for example by refusing the board’s request to extend the contract of former CEO Stuart Murray.

"They started up in a tough shoe," Bovey said. "If the minster gets too involved, it is inappropriate."

Sen. Marilou McPhedran, who teaches the UniverCity course each August at the museum, raised a similar concern about the past government.

"My sense is that this government is really playing catch-up, and that the auditor general's report says there really needs to be an acceleration."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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