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Leadership apologizes after report finds systemic racism at human rights museum

Last Updated Aug 5, 2020 at 1:38 pm EDT

The Canadian Museum For Human Rights is shown in Winnipeg on September 18, 2014. Leadership at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights are apologizing after an independent report found employees experienced systemic racism and other oppressions while working at the Winnipeg museum. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

WINNIPEG — Leadership at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is apologizing after an independent report found employees experienced systemic racism and other mistreatment while working at the Winnipeg institution.

“I apologize that it took a public crisis for the organization to seriously reflect on the issues of systemic racism, homophobia and other forms of oppression,” said Pauline Rafferty, the museum’s board chair and interim CEO, in a news release Wednesday.

The third-party report reviewed allegations of racism, homophobia and censorship by current and former employees. The museum closed Wednesday and Thursday to give staff an opportunity to review the report.

After the museum posted images of a Justice for Black Lives rally in June, stories from employees were posted online by a group called CMHR Stop Lying. Current and former employees responded that it was hypocritical of the museum to bring up the Black Lives rally because of racism they faced at work.

Employees also wrote about having to censor displays about LGBTQ history at the request of some school groups who visited the museum.

The stories led to the resignation of former CEO John Young, the formation of a diversity and inclusion committee and the external review.

Winnipeg lawyer Laurelle Harris conducted the review.

Her report found racism is pervasive and systemic at the museum in its employment practices, policies and in the actions of employees. The report said the racism had a negative physical, emotional and financial impact on employees who are Black, Indigenous and other people of colour. Harris also found instances of sexism and homophobia.

The report said staff who worked directly with the public were extremely diverse. But the vast majority of management was white and heterosexual and that created a “cultural schism,” with upper level managers less attuned to the impact of race, sex and gender identity.

Many staff members reported that “there was a tendency on the part of management to treat the museum as a profit-oriented corporation having its primary focus on revenue generation to the exclusion of organizational health and the fulfilment of its mandate,” the report said.

It said some employees indicated Black, Indigenous and other people of colour were passed over repeatedly for promotions. There were also examples of microaggressions and differential enforcement of the museum’s dress code.

There was also an issue of employees of colour facing racism from the public.

“One program interpreter described being laughed at by visitors while singing a traditional song on the hand drum,” the report said. “Another visitor asked for the program interpreter’s name so that she could ‘pray’ for her.”

No action was taken when racism from visitors was reported. When issues were raised, some employees said their employment was threatened.

The report includes 44 recommendations. The museum’s board is acting on some of them immediately, including a requirement for board trustees to take part in anti-racist education and screening policies for possible bias, said Rafferty.

The museum will also create a senior role focused on diversity and inclusion. And the museum’s leadership will focus on hiring practices and workplace culture, she said.

“We will recommit ourselves to the values upon which the Museum was founded, of human dignity and respect, and make this a priority. How we work will be as important as the work itself.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2020

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press