Manitoba

Former employees of Canadian Museum for Human Rights say they faced racism, mistreatment

Some former employees of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights say they experienced racism while working at the institution. 

CEO acknowledges shortcomings at the world-renowned institution, says he'll try to build trust with staff

Former employees of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg say they experienced racism while working there. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Some former employees of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights say they experienced racism while working at the institution. 

Using the hashtag #cmhrstoplying, people who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of colour have been sharing their experiences at the national museum, which is in Winnipeg. The museum's CEO has acknowledged it has to "improve."

In a public social media post, Armando Perla said the museum's officials were "vicious and made me feel like I had no value the whole time I worked there" after he spoke up about racist and homophobic attitudes. 

In a post on Instagram, Shania Pruden said she was told she wasn't allowed to wear a beaded key chain she received as a gift from an elder while working there. 

Julie White said in a social media post that she raised concerns that the museum wasn't using an Indigenous elder, and often used non-Indigenous people, to lead its version of the Kairos blanket exercise, which is meant to educate people on the effects of colonization over time from an Indigenous perspective.

"I'll never forget the look on those beautiful brown babies' faces as a white man said out loud: 'Imagine if this happened to your people' — when it literally did happen to them," she wrote. 

She went on to say that participating in the "inappropriately conducted exercise" was so upsetting to her as an Indigenous person that she eventually refused to help deliver it. 

Some say they raised these issues with museum administration but nothing was done. 

'We must identify shortcomings'

The accusations come amid mass protests in Canada and around the world against anti-Black racism and racial inequality in general in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody.

The museum responded to the posts in a public statement from CEO John Young Tuesday night, saying museum administration plans to reach out to staff and volunteers who identify as Black, Indigenous or a person of colour to listen to their experiences and concerns.

"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," Young said in the statement. 

In an interview at the museum on Wednesday afternoon, Young said he is taking the matter very seriously. He said the level of concern raised on social media comes as a surprise to many people working at the museum, which states on its website its mission is to enhance the public's understanding and promote respect, reflection and dialogue around human rights.

"The idea that all of us are born free and equal in dignity and rights, that's a lofty standard, and we take that standard very seriously," he said. "It's clear that there's some shortcomings here in the institution."

CEO John Young of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights acknowledges there are shortcomings when it comes to dealing with racism at the institution dedicated to the principle of human rights. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Addressing the issues, Young said, means hearing from staff, management and the community to figure out how to respond, identify the gaps and audit the museum's practices and processes.

But he said the museum can't do it alone.

"It's going to require time and it's going to require an enduring commitment to address the realities of systemic racism."

Young said his first step will be to build trust internally with current and former staff, then work on building trust externally.

Response not enough

Thiané Diop, who worked at the museum for four years and says she started the #cmhrstoplying hashtag, said in a letter posted to Facebook that Young's response fell flat and these issues shouldn't be new to him. 

"Black employees have been bringing forward these issues to every level of management since the opening of the museum," she wrote.

"You have had ample opportunity to do better, but you and your management staff chose time and time again to silence Black employees and push them out of their jobs."

It should not be the responsibility of employees who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour to fix the problem, she said. 

"No amount of focus groups and placations will change what is rotten in your structure," she wrote. "Look deeper or stop pretending — anything else is just making things worse."

Diop said Tuesday that she and other former employees weren't available for interviews, but are taking some time to figure out what to do next.

Institutional issues larger than internal complaints

An international human rights lawyer agrees the museum must reassess its policies related to anti-racism in the workplace and find a better mechanism for dealing with employee complaints.

"I think it is particularly serious for the museum because it's a human rights museum, and it undercuts that message in the mandate if it's not dealing with this seriously," said David Matas.

He said museum leaders need to reach out and listen to the systemic demands being flagged. The issue of how the museum deals with its attendees, exhibits and antiquities on display should be kept separate from how it treats and communicates with its staff, Matas said.

Staff complaints need to be taken sincerely and handled promptly at the highest level, he said.

"Even if the staff problem goes away certainly and the staff are completely satisfied, or even if the staff gave the museum a sterling report, that wouldn't remove all the issues the museum faces, not at all," he said.

In a statement sent to museum staff late Wednesday, Young said the museum will hire an external person to review the complaints and hire an external organization as an auditor. It will then take the results of each to develop an action plan and will publicly share that plan as well as the results of the independent review and the audit.

About the Author

Sarah Petz

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Sarah Petz is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. She was previously based at CBC New Brunswick. Her career has taken her across three provinces and includes a stint in East Africa. In 2017, she was part of a team of reporters and editors nominated for a National Newspaper Award for a feature on the Port of Saint John in New Brunswick. She can be reached at sarah.petz@cbc.ca.

With files from CBC's Karen Pauls and Cameron MacIntosh

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