It is, in no uncertain terms, a moment of reckoning.
Revelations of pervasive and systemic racism at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights — as outlined in a 72-page report by Winnipeg lawyer Laurelle Harris, which was released earlier this week — have placed the institution in the humiliating position of appearing to be in complete contravention of the principles it purports to espouse.
The CMHR’s stated mission is, in part, "to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue." The report, titled "Rebuilding the Foundation," offers evidence that many of its long-standing practices have resulted in something closer to the complete opposite.
Ms. Harris’s team interviewed 25 current and former employees of the museum. The four-week investigation revealed numerous instances in which the CMHR’s upper management, comprised almost exclusively of white individuals, routinely dismissed or deflected complaints that lower-level, "front-facing" staff — many of whom identified as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour (BIPOC) — were subjected to racist and discriminatory behaviour.
White people were hired or promoted regularly while BIPOC individuals were passed over. People of colour were paid less than white staffers. Front-facing staff were subjected to sexism, homophobia, transphobia and/or sexual harassment that "may not have been investigated or addressed adequately."
The report also noted that the CMHR’s former president and CEO, who resigned in June after numerous allegations of discriminatory and racist behaviour and attitudes were made public, failed to appreciate the seriousness of the concerns, would not acknowlege the validity of the complaints and accepted no personal responsibility for the environment at the museum.
His departure from the museum’s top executive post was a necessary first step, but the process of rebuilding the CMHR’s reputation will take time and require diligent, dedicated effort — perhaps by a board and executive that looks much different from the current configuration.
Also of note in the report are the numerous descriptions of racism and discriminatory behaviour experienced by front-facing staff at the hands of museum patrons — many reportedly members of VIP tours — who were apparently unable to understand or accept the information presented in the CMHR’s exhibits.
That front-line staff would be subjected to varying levels of abuse by museum-goers should have surprised no one in CMHR management. This is not a facility at which patrons wander wistfully through galleries, admiring the artistic works of great painters and sculptors and craftspeople. Rather, it’s a facility whose mandated purpose is to present the hard truths of humanity in a manner intended to create transformative change in the people who visit.
In many cases, CMHR exhibits will necessarily challenge the deeply-held beliefs of its visitors; front-facing museum staff should be fully trained and equipped to deal with the sometimes-antagonistic reactions its exhibits elicit. Instead, Ms. Harris’s investigation revealed the CMHR’s chronically underfunded human-resources department was unable to "to offer training in a meaningful, consistent and deliberate way."
It’s encouraging that the CMHR’s acting president and CEO, Pauline Rafferty, has apologized for the museum’s failures and the board accepts the report’s findings. But there are difficult paths to be followed if the museum hopes to find its way back toward credibility.
There’s a conjunction hidden in the CMHR’s name that’s more significant than its meagre two letters might suggest. This is not a museum of human rights; it’s a museum for human rights. That distinction should be kept in sharp focus as the duly chastened CMHR forges ahead.