A University of Manitoba professor says she fears the Canadian Museum for Human Rights may be watering down the government's role as a rights violator and exaggerating its status as a champion of human rights.
Law professor Karen Busby points to a number of changes in the wording of museum planning documents between 2012 and 2013. She outlines her research in a chapter of a book to be published early next year.
Busby cites several examples of "depoliticizing" and "rinsing out the reasons" for how the Canadian government was involved in denying people human rights through history.
"If the museum is mainly a tool that the government can use to say, 'Aren't we fabulous?' then the museum will be a failure," Busby told CBC News on Friday.
"What we need to do is ensure that stories of success are told, but also stories of failure are told," added Busby, who is the director of the university's Centre for Human Rights Research.
The museum officially opens on Sept. 19.
Busby reached her conclusion by comparing a 2012 version of a museum planning document called Gallery Profiles — released under access to information law — to a revised 2013 version of it.
She found an exhibit on same-sex marriage in the 2012 document said, "Some same-sex couples have fought hard to have their unions recognized in law, while other 'queer' people question the institution of marriage itself."
She wrote that the 2013 version was quite different. It said: "In 2005, Canada became the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage."
Busby wrote, "It is unclear why this story was depoliticized, that is, leaving the impression that the government moved of its own accord — rather than in response to years of agitation — to address this issue."
"It's like the government granted the right and ignores the fact that there was a struggle to make that happen," she said in the interview.
But a museum spokesperson said the wording in the planning document is not the same as what will appear in the exhibits.
"When people come into the museum and look at the content, that document won't have any relevance," said Rhea Yates, a media relations adviser with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
"We've moved on from planning documents to actually having exhibits. So same-sex marriage is covered in our exhibits along with the struggle to achieve those rights."
Depoliticized and de-contextualized?
Busby uncovered other examples: For example, on the experiences of refugees in Canada, she wrote that the 2012 document stated, "Refugees who escape threatening situations to come to Canada have little control over their acceptance and the way they are portrayed in the media, despite the UN Convention on the Rights of Refugees."
She said it was changed in the 2013 version to, "Canada is recognized around the world as a safe haven for refugees."
'If the stories mainly focus on the government as the 'good guy,' then that's going to be a problem.' - Karen Busby
On the right to vote in Canada, Busby found the museum's 2012 planning document said, "In Canada's past, the right to vote was frequently given to or taken away from various categories of people for political reasons."
Busby found the message in 2013 became, "The democratic right to vote in elections was not available to all Canadians until 2002."
She concluded, "It is unclear why this story was depoliticized by rinsing out the reasons for and ways in which governments denied people the right to vote."
Busby also wrote about the museum's treatment of a story of racial segregation in Canada.
She found the 2012 version of the story said, "The incident of Viola Desmond's arrest happened in a wider context of racial segregation that existed in many parts of Canada."
In contrast, Busby said the 2013 version became this: "In 1947, Viola Desmond, a black Nova Scotian, was arrested and charged for what appeared to be a racially motivated reason."
Busby concluded that the 2013 version "de-contextualizes this story and, inexplicably, contests the motivation for Desmond's arrest, thereby undermining the message."
Not actual wording, museum spokesperson stresses
But Yates reiterated her point that the language Busby cites — in this instance, concerning the Desmond case — are not the actual words people will see at the museum.
"So that content would never appear in an exhibit. That's a planning document to help museum staff understand what's in the exhibits and what the intent of the exhibits are, but that is in no way the actual words," said Yates.
Busby said apart from the "troubling" changes she found in the planning document, she also found many improvements in the 2013 version.
She said she's looking forward to seeing the museum content when it opens in a week, and she hopes she can give visitors the ability to look at it with a more critical eye.
"If the stories mainly focus on the government as the 'good guy,' then that's going to be a problem," Busby said.
"There's a lot the Canadian state has to account for. Canada is a fantastic country and Canada has a good record on human rights. But there have been some mistakes and we need to examine those mistakes in some detail."
To that, Yates said, "We don't shy away from telling the difficult stories."