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Opinion

A disservice to Murray and the museum

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/10/2014 (2086 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On October 15, the board of trustees of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights announced its decision to seek a new president. The press release is entitled "CMHR recognizes achievements of inaugural president and CEO."

What it means is president and CEO Stuart Murray will be out of the door as of November.

It seemed everything was looking up in May for CMHR president Stuart Murray and architect Antoine Predock.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

It seemed everything was looking up in May for CMHR president Stuart Murray and architect Antoine Predock.

Murray was both sherpa and ambassador for the museum during the past five years of its tumultuous development. Murray did, indeed, guide "the museum's transition from a construction site to an operational national museum," in the words of the release.

Anyone who has followed the trajectory of this national cultural institution cannot help but sense the disquiet surrounding the last-minute, even callous, announcement signalling the end of Murray's leadership. That this comes from an institution based on human rights is an irony that should not pass unmentioned.

We believe it is symptomatic of the Harper government's approach to its nominations processes.

We had the pleasure -- and sometime pain -- of working on the advisory human rights council of the museum for several years. Many of us worried privately about how to protect museum researchers from the political buffeting to which the human rights content would undoubtedly be subject.

It has helped enormously that Murray, a former Progressive Conservative politician, was able to bridge discussions between the Harper government and other levels of government. It also helped that he navigated the museum through treacherous waters when the Harper government balked at providing funding a few years ago. This incident may be forgotten in the wake of recent full-page advertisements thanking the Harper government for its contribution (which eventually came through), but it caused several aspects of the huge project to come to a screeching halt, causing delays.

Murray kept his head through this while most would have lost theirs.

There have been advisers, designers, architects, engineers, mandarins, governments, politicians and external experts -- all with views on the museum and what it should contain. Murray has shown humility in negotiating these tensions and moving forward.

True, not everything was done right, but we dare say no one would have scored a perfect record.

The Museums Act provides that appointments are the responsibility of the board although subject to the federal cabinet approval. But Eric Hughes, the board chairman who is reportedly close to Harper, turned that equation around and moved the emphasis to the federal decision in a recent Globe and Mail interview when he said such an appointment "ends up getting approved and going through Ottawa." And there's the rub.

Decisions on appointments and reappointments that depend on cabinet approval are often left until the last minute, as appears to have happened here. Incumbents wonder whether they will have a job a few weeks hence or whether a particular decision might tip the scale one way or another.

Hurried and flawed decisions about appointments to agencies, boards and commissions, to the courts, and to institutions like the museum, have become standard fare at the federal level. They damage the independence of office-holders and erode the arm's-length relationship that should prevail between the government and the operations of the institution. They raise questions about transparency.

To lose Murray's leadership before all the galleries are completed strikes us as short-sighted and self-defeating. If the museum names a caretaker interim leader, it will be at a crucial and sensitive phase of its first few operational months, in addition to dealing with the loss of Murray's leadership while some galleries remain incomplete.

The manner and timing of the announcement and its implications for the museum's development have done a disservice to Murray and to the museum.


Pearl Eliadis is a human rights lawyer who teaches civil liberties and McGill University. Ken Norman is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Saskatchewan.

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