March, 2014 / Author:

The new Canadian Museum for Human Rights is a balance of competing visions

Since the announcement of its construction in the heart of Winnipeg, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) has had a lot of media attention, as well as its fair share of controversy. There have been allegations that the content and tone of the museum’s galleries have been influenced by the Conservative government. No doubt more than a few Canadians will be wondering what awaits them.

Media relations manager Maureen Fitzhenry said the museum is the only one in the world that’s about human rights themselves. “We look at human rights as a story and we weave in stories from all different walks of life that support that theme. It’s not perfect,” Fitzhenry admitted, but stressed that a lot of effort had been made to be collaborative and grassroots-oriented in determining museum content. She said decisions were made by a steering committee comprised of four directors who submitted recommendations to the chief executive officer (CEO) and then the board. They ensure all content decisions reflect the museum’s mandate to “inspire reflection and dialogue about human rights with special thought, but not exclusive reference, to Canada.”

Fitzhenry said the federal Conservative government has not had any influence over the museum’s affairs, despite the allegations. “We are a Crown corporation, but we are an arm’s length away from the government.” She did note that the CEO and board members are appointed by the federal government. “They have the power to dismiss our CEO or members of our board.” 

“That line between education and activism is a thin one,” said Fitzhenry. While the museum is “deliberately trying not to be activist,” she said they will work to encourage debate and lead panel discussions, while hoping that “people will protest outside the museum.” 

Armando Perla, CMHR researcher and curator and OutWords board member, said, “There is LGBTQ content in almost all the galleries in the museum.” He has been involved with the development of most of them. Perla was instrumental in getting a gender-neutral washroom installed that will be an exhibit itself, presenting a legal case involving a transgendered woman who wasn’t allowed to use a women’s bathroom in a club. Unfortunately, there are currently only plans for one such washroom in the museum. 

Perla said they were trying to present a more encompassing definition of human rights than the one offered by the United Nations (UN). “Right now, there is no real international hard law document that protects the rights of LGBTQ people. So things that are not included in this definition, we’re trying to bring… not just into the intro gallery but to all of the other galleries as well.” 

CMHR curation and research manager Dr. Jodi Giesbrecht said, “It’s really sort of an effort to show that human rights is ongoing, the concept of human rights in, let’s say, UN documents are pretty recent. These are ideas that have come up in the past few decades… and so a lot of our galleries do try and take that broad perspective.” 

Giesbrecht and Perla had a near-exhaustive list of all of the content visitors can expect to see in the musuem. On the GLBTQ* end, there will be national content, including queer resistance in Canada, the Toronto and Truxx raids, the “We Demand” manifesto and the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Quebec charter of rights and freedoms. There will also be international references such as same-sex marriage in the Netherlands, Harvey Milk, the spread of HIV/AIDS, the Iranian railroad, cyberbullying and the Blue Diamond Society. One of the galleries, titled Protecting Rights in Canada, will cover some landmark Supreme Court decisions, while another will focus on issues such as the residential school system and bullying from a youth perspective. With regards to women’s rights, Giesbrecht mentioned several references, including noted feminist thinkers, the removal of gender discrimination from the Indian Act and specific women’s rights like maternity leave, pay equity and abortion. 

Many of the allegations concerning politicized interference in the museum’s direction have been made by former staffers who remained anonymous. One current employee commented confidentially on the museum to OutWords. They pointed out that more than one board member had connections to the mining and oil industries. Other taboo subjects include poverty and Palestine. “There was a whole exhibit that got cut, there are people who quit over that,” said the anonymous source. “They didn’t think that peace was a human right. It was a whole gallery… it got removed.” When asked about whether the museum was going to open on time they said, “We are [going to] open on time, but we’re sacrificing a lot of the content and the integrity of the content to open on time.”

Regardless of the controversy, the finished product on display at the museum’s galleries will reflect a competing and dynamic series of visions. While the connections between the federal government and the CEO and board of directors can be a cause for concern, we should also be cautious before writing off the museum entirely. If people don’t participate in the discussion of what truly defines human rights, their views might be excluded and that could result in the impotent, Disney-fied version that many are wary of the museum becoming. So whether you’ll be lining up to get inside or protesting out-front come September, the important thing is that you show up. 

What are your thoughts on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights? Find us on Facebook, email or tweet us @OutWords.


– Miles McEnery is the social media editor for OutWords.

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