The Canadian Museum of Human Rights (c) Robert Lindsell on Wikicommons / CC BY 2.0

Canadian Museum for Human Rights president to stand down amid discrimination crisis

Jonathan Knott, 25.06.2020
An external review will examine recent accusations of racism and homophobia at the institution
The head of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg is to stand down next month amid controversies over racism and homophobia at the institution.

The museum’s president and chief executive John Young told staff on 18 June that he will not seek reappointment when his current term ends on 14 August.

This came the same day as a report from the broadcaster CBC in which current and former employees said the museum had excluded LGBT+ content from some school tours.

The museum’s executive team has since issued a formal apology, saying its actions amounted to a “profound betrayal” of the LGBT+ community.

A statement acknowledged that between January 2015 and mid-2017, the institution had “accommodated some school groups who requested adapted school programs that excluded - or even hid - LGBTQ2+ content”.

“This practice was wrong and was ended,” says the executive team, describing it as “contrary to the museum's mandate, and contrary to everything we stand for as a museum for human rights”.

Following the CBC report, Winnipeg’s former mayor Glen Murray resigned from the board of the museum’s friends group.

Concerns were also expressed by Pride Winnipeg, which said “it is discouraging to see that the voices of a community that has been silenced so often [are] being silenced by an institution created to uphold and honour the rights of all”.

Pride Winnipeg is due to host the national Fierte Canada Pride festival in 2022. The event’s welcome gala was due to be held at the CMHR, but Pride Winnipeg now says it will now be considering different venues.

Non-profit organisation the LGBT Purge Fund has also expressed concerns, saying accusations of workplace racism and homophobia at museum “are very serious and must be met with an equally serious response”.

The fund had been in talks with the museum about exhibitions to memorialise LGBT+ federal employees who faced discrimination from the Canadian government.

The organisation has now put collaboration with the museum on hold, saying “in due time and in coordination with our board and other key stakeholders, we will make an informed decision about our future collaboration with the CMHR”.

A spokeswoman for the museum said: “Before and since the LGBT Purge Fund issued its statement on June 13, we have had several communications with representatives of the organisation, by phone and email, to discuss their concerns.

“We understand and respect their desire for transparency and their emphasis on the need for the museum to move beyond words to demonstrate a commitment to eradicating systemic racism, discrimination and homophobia in our workplace. This also applies to the concerns expressed by Pride Winnipeg. We will work to regain trust.”

The issue of homophobia will be included in an external review into systemic racism and discrimination at the institution, which had already been commissioned following a series of recent allegations. The review will be led by Winnipeg lawyer Laurelle Harris.

A spokeswoman for the museum said: “The external review of concerns and experiences shared by current and former employees will be led by Laurelle Harris, who will provide her initial report with recommendations by the end of July.

“That will inform a broad and comprehensive audit of the museum’s policies, practices and processes with the goal of eradicating systemic racism and discrimination, including that against people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. This process will also be led by an external party, but involve participation by employees and others. A concrete action plan will follow, based on the results and findings.”

Racism accusations

The museum's apology comes amid ongoing accusations of workplace racism. John Young issued a statement on 8 June acknowledging that “over the past two days, some current and former employees have posted comments on social media about their experiences with racism at the museum”.

“I hold myself accountable for fostering a climate of anti-racism at the museum through all of our work,” said Young. “Starting immediately, the museum will reach out in a number of ways to staff and volunteers who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of colour to listen to their experiences working at the museum and their concerns about its systems and policies. This is a necessary first step and will be followed by an action plan.”

He added: “I acknowledge it is not enough for the museum to make statements opposing racism. We must identify shortcomings and blind spots, both within ourselves as individuals and within the museum, and take concrete steps to improve. That work will not happen overnight, nor will it ever be complete. It is a practice that we must adopt in every aspect of our work.”

Former staff member Thiane Diop told CBC she was “livid” about Young’s response.

“These conversations have already been going on and there hasn't been enough concrete change,” she said.

Since then, further allegations have been posted by former employees on social media using the hashtag #cmhrstoplying and dedicated accounts.

On 11 June the museum tweeted a link to a CBC report on these accusations with the comment “we have work to do”.

The museum said it had nothing further to add to Young’s statement, pending the results of the external review.

Canada’s heritage minister Steven Guilbeault said: “We have been informed of a variety of allegations of abuse, institutional racism and discrimination at the CMHR in Winnipeg, including apparent cases of self-censorship of LGBTQ realities at the CMHR.

“We are in contact with the leadership of the museum to ensure they take measures to address the situation. We’ve been clear: our government expects our national museums to be held to the highest standards of inclusiveness, social awareness and respect, including in the processes leading up to and the implementation of their educational programs and exhibitions. An institution like the CMHR should not be perceived as condoning homophobia or engaging in self-censorship. Its role is to expose the realities of those whose voices have been silenced, not to silence them even more.”

CMHR, which officially opened in 2014, is one of nine national museums in Canada. It has long faced controversies over its content, which began before it opened.

In 2011, it issued a statement responding to “misconceptions in the media”. This said that one false belief was that “there will be only two galleries in the CMHR, one on the Holocaust and the other on Aboriginal peoples.

The museum said that in fact “there are 12 permanent zones (galleries) in the museum”.

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