Human rights museum board behind push for 'positive' stories

The board of trustees of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg is behind a request for more museum content about "positive" Canadian stories, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Canadian museum manager's letter indicates desire for 'optimistic tone' for Peace Gallery

Human rights museum pushes 'positive' stories

10 years ago
Duration 2:33
Board at Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg is behind a request for more museum content about 'positive' Canadian stories, CBC News has learned.

The board of trustees of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg is behind a request for more museum content about "positive" Canadian stories, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

In a letter last July, a manager at the museum, which is slated to open in 2014, wrote, "The board, in their role as guardians of the institution’s mandate, recommended that some material changes be made to the visitor experience and asked management to find some solutions.’’

The letter indicates a desire to maintain a "positive, optimistic tone’’ and increased Canadian content in a gallery called the Peace Forum.

The letter continues, "The new content to be developed for this space will meet the high level expectations of the board, namely more positive Canadian content.’’

CBC News reported last week that the museum has experienced an exodus of employees, amid allegations of indecision and political interference on the part of management and the board of trustees.

The board is appointed by the federal government.

Board seeking 'balanced approach'

"I think if you look at the overall suite of galleries within this museum, I think we have overachieved, sometimes, the critical stories," Eric Hughes, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, said in an interview with CBC News.

"I think the board is looking for a balanced approach. I think we have got an adequate number of stories in the museum that portray this nation’s past failings and I think we are conscious of the fact we also need to celebrate our achievements," said Hughes.

The $351-million museum building, which is under construction in Winnipeg, is nearing completion and scheduled to open in 2014.

It was created through a partnership between the federal, provincial, and city governments along with the private sector.

Current and former employees who spoke to CBC News expressed concern the board of trustees is influencing the content of the exhibits. In some cases, they said there were pressures to make the museum content more favourable to the federal government or commercial interests.

Museum CEO Stuart Murray has said he has the final say over content.

"The board obviously sets direction but I’m responsible for the final decision," Murray said in an interview.

'Lost opportunity'

The minutes of the museum’s board of trustees from March 2012 show the board recommended that one gallery space, numbered L3Z4, "be re-evaluated as a possible space to feature contemporary Canada as a safe haven for new Canadians where rights are recognized and respected.’’

"In my view, a mandate of the museum to tell positive uplifting stories is a lost opportunity," University of Manitoba law Prof. Karen Busby, said in an interview with CBC News.

'In my view, it would be a tragedy … if they [the museum] don’t tell the stories of mistakes that Canada has made.'—Karen Busby, University of Manitoba law professor

Busby, director of the university’s Centre for Human Rights Research, said the board’s call for more positive stories about immigration and refugees is troubling.

"That’s the kind of direction that shouldn’t be coming from the board," she said.

"Actually, Canada has a lot of terrible immigration stories," she added. "The lessons to be learned are from the mistakes we have made — the stories of who we turned away when clearly they were facing humanitarian crises in their home country.

"Those are the stories we need to tell. And we need to tell those stories because we repeat the same mistakes today."

Hughes said the board doesn't want to shy away from the stories that are disturbing, but it must aim for that balanced approach.

"We’re supposed to be preserving and promoting our heritage, not just showing all the things that we’ve failed at in the past," he said.

More topics than space permits

Last week, Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore reappointed Hughes, a chartered accountant and an Alberta oil industry executive, as chair of the museum’s board of trustees after a term as interim chair.

Former museum employees told CBC News they were concerned that in the past, Hughes had expressed views on how the museum will treat issues such as poverty, capitalism and climate change.

"If we’re talking in a board meeting about specific ideas, then people can express their opinions, but that doesn’t become policy," said Hughes.

"We have got an inaugural set of exhibits that I feel are appropriately reflecting the human rights stories that are the most relevant stories to Canadians in 2014 when we open," he said.

Hughes adds that any subjects not included in the inaugural exhibits when the museum opens could be added in the future as new content is developed.

"We have got probably five or six times as … many topics that we’d like to put in the museum as we currently have room for. And as such we have had to, and we will continue to, prioritize and balance the museum content such that it reflects the best suite of stories," said Hughes.

Despite the debate over exhibit content, Busby is enthusiastic about the museum and excited to see what will be presented in the exhibits.

"In my view, it would be a tragedy, though, if they don’t tell the stories of mistakes that Canada has made. And that’s my fear — that they won’t tell about atrocities that have occurred on our own soil for which we can learn many valuable lessons going forward," she said, referencing the wrongs done to First Nations people.