Gail Asper ‘very troubled’ by allegations of discrimination at Canadian Museum for Human Rights

By | June 19, 2020

Gail Asper, the woman who led the campaign to bring her father’s vision for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to fruition, says she is “very troubled” by allegations of racism and homophobia raised by current and former employees in recent weeks.

Her comments come the same day the museum issued apology on behalf of its executive team for the practice of hiding gay content on tours at the request of certain tour groups. 

Asper took over the museum project when her father, Izzy Asper, died in 2003, and now sits on its board of trustees. She said she is watching the developments closely.

“They are committed to a complete and fully transparent accounting of systemic racism and discrimination at the museum,” she said in a statement to CBC.

“I’m happy they are undertaking this process.”

Gail Asper says she is troubled by recent allegations of racism and homophobia at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which she worked to bring to fruition. (CBC)

Earlier this week, CBC News reported that current and former employees said management would sometimes ask staff not to show any gay content on tours at the request of certain guests, including religious school groups.

‘This practice was wrong’

The museum confirmed that from January 2015 until the middle of 2017, schools and classes could make a request for content to be excluded. That included stories about diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

“This practice was wrong and was ended. This practice is contrary to the museum’s mandate, and contrary to everything we stand for as a museum for human rights,” the museum’s apology letter, issued Friday afternoon, says. 

The letter goes on to say that the executive team acknowledges that hiding these stories and experiences is a “profound betrayal” to the LGBT community, to students, and to the museum’s staff, volunteers and donors. 

“And it is a betrayal of the museum’s central conviction that all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights,” the letter says. 

A thorough review of the practice will be done as part of the external investigation the museum has initiated into complaints about systemic racism and discrimination at the museum, the letter says. 

The letter comes after John Young, the CEO of the museum, announced Thursday in a staff-wide email that he won’t be seeking reappointment when his term ends this August. He had previously said he intended to continue his role. 

Last week, the museum said it has hired a lawyer to investigate complaints of racism and other forms of discrimination including homophobia at the museum in Winnipeg.

Former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray, who was the first openly gay mayor of a major North American city, also announced Thursday he was stepping down from the board of the Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights over the allegations, saying this type of behaviour totally goes against what the museum was set up to do. 

Former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray stepped down from his role with the fundraising arm of the museum on Thursday over allegations management would sometimes ask staff not to show any gay content on tours at the request of certain guests. (Warren Kay/CBC)

“When you see this culture of … people who are experiencing racism, who are seeing the erasing and denial of the other journeys that are the whole reason for the museum, it’s devastating,” he told CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa in an interview Friday.

“It’s totally institutionalized discrimination.” 

The original vision for the museum — which was first announced in 2003, during Murray’s time as mayor — was as a “transformative” institution for Winnipeg and for the world, he said, where people could not only learn about the history of human rights, but a place where current human rights issues would be discussed and advanced.

Murray — who is currently running for the leadership of the federal Green Party — said he thinks it’s time for the federal government to look into why that’s not happening. 

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said in an emailed statement that an institution like the CMHR “should not be perceived as condoning homophobia or engaging in self-censorship.” 

“Its role is to expose the realities of those whose voices have been silenced, not to silence them even more.”

He said his office takes this matter very seriously and is in contact with the museum’s senior management to ensure it is addressed. 

In an email, Barry Karlenzig, the president of Pride Winnipeg, said his organization was very disappointed by the recent news that the CMHR has been censoring its exhibits for certain guests. He said Pride Winnipeg will be looking at different venues to host its welcome gala for the Fierté Canada Pride conference, set to take place in Winnipeg in 2022. 

“We hope the CMHR will take this opportunity to do better, to accurately and fully reflect the history and culture of 2SLGBTQIA* Canadians in their permanent exhibitions without censorship,” Karlenzig said.

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