October 23, 2020

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A more forceful gesture was available

Editorial

Early Thursday evening, shortly after this editorial was published online, the CMHR announced the immediate departure of president and CEO John Young.

 

It could fairly be argued that officials at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights are trying to do the right thing.

Whether they’re succeeding is another question altogether, on which Manitoba’s LGBTTQ+ community would undoubtedly have some very strong opinions — about the museum’s recent practices, about the apology it issued after its egregious conduct was revealed, and about the leadership that allowed it to happen.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>The Canadian Museum for Human Rights</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The museum issued an apology last week after admitting staff were sometimes ordered to hide content regarding the rights of the LGBTTQ+ community at the request of certain guests, including religious school groups.

Officials confirmed that from January 2015 until the middle of 2017, the museum agreed to requests by schools and classes for that content — including stories about diverse sexual orientations and gender identities — to be excluded.

In at least one case, a CMHR staff member from the LGBTTQ+ community was reportedly asked to physically block a same-sex marriage display from a passing group.

"This practice was wrong and was ended," the museum’s apology letter stated. "This practice is contrary to the museum’s mandate, and contrary to everything we stand for as a museum for human rights."

In the wake of this scandal, chief executive officer John Young accepted responsibility for the censorship policy and announced he will not seek reappointment when his contract ends in August.

That response seems insufficient, considering the outrageous nature of this betrayal of the community’s trust, and the length of time the practice of accepting requests to hide LGBTTQ+ content was allowed to remain in place. Mr. Young could have offered a more forceful gesture by stepping down immediately.

This was not a one-and-done mistake; this was a long-standing practice at a museum whose clearly stated mandate is "to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others, and to encourage reflection and dialogue."

Condemnation was swift and forceful. Former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray, the first openly gay mayor of a major North American city, resigned from the fundraising arm of the museum, saying the censorship flies in the face of the reason the museum was created.

Pride Winnipeg has cancelled a planned welcome reception for the Fierté Canada Pride conference that was to be held at the museum in 2022. And this week, a non-profit mandated to memorialize the purge of federal employees — which saw thousands of civil servants, including Canadians in the military and RCMP, fired because of their sexual orientation from the 1950s to the 1990s — suspended talks with the CMHR over a planned exhibition.

It would be shameful for any visitor to deliberately avoid museum content because they believe the rights of some human beings are not equal to the rights of others. For a museum dedicated to celebrating human rights to voluntarily agree to facilitate such blatant censorship simply because it had received requests to do so is nothing short of a disgrace.

Mr. Young deserves credit for taking responsibility for this deeply troubling practice, but he should have realized a more forceful gesture was in order.

Having balked at the opportunity to do the honourable thing after accepting responsibility for the CMHR’s massive misstep, Mr. Young would be well advised to make the best use possible of his final weeks on the job.

It will be impossible in that short time to fully atone for the wrongs that occurred under his watch, but he owes it to the public whose rights the institution is pledged to defend to ensure his successor inherits a CMHR that is decidedly more committed to its mandate.

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Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

History

Updated on Thursday, June 25, 2020 at 9:03 PM CDT: Early Thursday evening, shortly after this Editorial was published online, the CMHR announced the immediate departure of President and CEO John Young.

June 26, 2020 at 8:27 AM: Adds link to news story announcing Young's departure

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