Disgrace at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

August 2020 – It is difficult to imagine a more bitter betrayal than that perpetrated on vulnerable communities by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). In June, employees and former employees charged that discrimination, sexual harassment and racism were endemic in an institution whose stated mandate is “to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others, and to encourage reflection and dialogue.”

The CMHR is in Winnipeg.

Staff also alleged that they were forced to censor LGBT content for visiting religious groups. Museum management clearly believed that the rights that we fought long and hard for weren’t that important, and could be conveniently erased at their discretion. Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, was appalled: “We believed in them. This is the highest institution for human rights in this country and they betrayed us, they betrayed our stories,” she said.

John Young, who as CEO was responsible for the management of the museum, evidently thought that his senior managers making a mockery of the institution’s prime directive was not that serious an offence. Just a flesh wound, a minor bump in the road. Although earlier this year he stated he would like to stay on as CEO, when the allegations emerged he munificently decided that perhaps now he’d leave at the end of his term in August. After some howls of outrage and no doubt pressure from the Board of Trustees who realized the museum of which they were in charge now had zero credibility, he changed his mind and decided to leave in June.

When the allegations were made, which were confirmed in a report issued this past week by an independent mediator, the museum did what all federal institutions do. They struck up a committee. They clearly needed to demonstrate they were doing something, but it invites derision that a museum of human rights would need to create a “diversity and inclusion committee”. That’s your mandate! When hiring managers for your institution part of the job description should be “has demonstrated a commitment to human rights”, and that in the subsequent interview the job applicant should be asked to expand on this theme. But no. Apparently Human Resources didn’t think this was important, despite it being the reason for the museum’s existence.

Isha Khan has been hired as the new CEO of the museum. She begins her job on August 17, and has stated that her priority is to re-establish trust with the public, stakeholders and staff. No kidding. I wish her well, but a disgraceful betrayal of this magnitude isn’t easily forgiven or forgotten.