Tuesday, 11 March 2014

TUESDAY NEWS DAY: CENSORSHIP IN CANADA'S HUMAN RIGHTS MUSEUM

BY: BRITTNEY SPROULE

As many of you may have seen in the news recently (and as one of our commentors brought up for discussion on Alex's recent Museum Monday post), there has been much controversy (and rightly so) surrounding a blog post written by Canadian Historian and specialist in the modern history of women and children in Canada, Veronica Strong-Boag. Strong-Boag's post was commissioned for International Women's Day by the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg, MB and was then rejected by the CMHR's communications department for "not meeting some of the museum's objectives."

Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg, Manitoba

You can read Strong-Boag's original post here, which she shared publicly on ActiveHistory.ca after being rejected by the CMHR. I should note that Strong-Boag's post was initially posted publicly by the CMHR for a few hours and she was notified of its successful posting. However, the post was withdrawn after further examination by the museum's Communications department, deeming Strong-Boag's comments on the current federal Conservative government as unacceptable.

You can  view here the response letter the CMHR provided to Strong-Boag after withdrawing her post, as well as Strong-Boag's subsequent (and disbelieving) response to the CMHR's actions. I highly encourage you to check out these links in order to gain a better sense of just how incredulous this entire situation is, particularly for a human rights museum and particularly in light of International Women's day.

ActiveHistory.ca

To give you an overarching idea of the content of Strong-Boag's CMHR post, below is an excerpt from her post, courtesy of ActiveHistory.ca. This was considered one of Strong-Boag's more "problematic" statements, in the eyes of the CMHR:
  
"By the close of the 20th century, the IWD feminist grassroots in Canada as elsewhere emphasized the role of class, race, sexuality, and (dis)ability in further jeopardizing particular groups. Although Canadians grew increasingly sensitive to human rights, state approval included the threat of cooptation. In 2014 Canada’s Conservative government left its anti-woman record unmentioned (which included withdrawal of plans for a national child care program and major cuts to Status of Women Canada [2006], the prohibition of civil servants taking pay equity complaints to the Human Rights Commission [2009], the denial of international funding for abortion [2010], and major cuts to public services that employ and serve significant numbers of women)[1] as it dedicated IWD week to the ‘valuable contribution of women entrepreneurs'."

And, to give you an idea of the kind of response the CMHR gave Strong-Boag, here are a few of the more unbelievable and, quite frankly, frustrating statements made by the CMHR's communications director Angela Cassie, courtsey of an article in the Winnipeg Free Press:

"We will more clearly ask that guest blogs consist of anecdotal accounts of first-person experiences that illuminate human rights themes, and that they include "rich media" relevant to the story (photos, images). We also make efforts to ensure that guest blogs not be used as, or be perceived as, a platform for political positions or partisan statements."

....mmmmm...perhaps some clarification is in order regarding what exactly constitutes an "anecdotal" and unpolitical human rights theme/experience. (Is that even possible?)

Dr. Veronica Strong-Boag

I think Strong-Boag summarizes my reaction (and I'm sure the reactions of many others) to this entire situation perfectly in her letter responding to Angela Cassie:

"Since museums and institutions of public memory are not normally intended to imitate Disneyland but to provide serious, although engaging and accessible, observations on the world, I have been a long time supporter of a Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Your letter has been extremely disheartening." (Winnipeg Free Press)


And so, I leave you now with some points to ponder (and invite any others that cross your mind!):

What does this situation say (if anything) about museums which rely on government funding - is this situation unique to the CMHR or would another government institution likely respond to Strong-Boag in the same way? Differently?

Would public/the CMHR's response be different if this post was not by a publicly prominent, well-educated female historian?

"The Museum fosters an appreciation for the importance of human rights, spurs informed dialogue and invites participants to identify the contemporary relevance of past and present human rights events, both at home and abroad" - this is an excerpt from the CMHR's mandate from their website. Do you think their reaction to Strong-Boag's blog post stays true to the CMHR's mandate?


3 comments:

  1. "....mmmmm...perhaps some clarification is in order regarding what exactly constitutes an "anecdotal" and unpolitical human rights theme/experience. (Is that even possible?)"

    I think you're bang on here, Brittney. Further, is it even desirable? I would suggest that restricting discussion about human rights using such criteria has, historically (and currently?), hindered both our understanding of and ability to make positive advances concerning issues of human rights. I, for one, don't think you can "foster an appreciation for the importance of human rights" without asking some tough questions, exploring tensions through dialogue, and adopting a critical and informed perspective. This unfortunate situation seems to be in direct opposition to the CMHR's mandate.

    A CMHR spokesperson wrote to Strong-Boag: "We regret that we have missed an opportunity". I couldn't agree more. If the CMHR isn't an appropriate place to engage in critical dialogue, where is?

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  2. Great comment Lily, thank you. I completely agree with your point that if the CMHR isn't an appropriate place to engage in these critical dialogues, where is? Perhaps that is what is most disappointing about this situation. However, I think the CMHR (even still) has an opportunity to be something really great for Canada, and ideally, set an example internationally for how we can engage with difficult knowledge in public forums like museums and foster awareness and, most importantly, dialogue.

    While the situation between the Communications department and Strong-Boag was very unfortunate, I'm really curious to see what the CMHR's exhibits will look like when the museum opens. Who knows, perhaps the CMHR's other staff involved in presenting museum content will have a more appropriate, effective, and even critical way of addressing the history/current state of different human rights themes through their exhibitions and programming.
    Fingers crossed, anyway.

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  3. Great discussion! I'm from Winnipeg originally, and I'm really hopeful that CMHR will - as you say, Brittney - fulfil its opportunity to be something really great, but there have been so many unsettling issues already... and it won't even be open for another 7 months! Frankly, I'm not altogether shocked by what has transpired so far, from the debate over content and inclusion of permanent galleries to the naming of Stuart Murray as CEO, considering the history of questionable actions by Gail Asper over the previous decade. That said, the censoring of Strong-Boag has forced a public discussion about what the political motivations of the museum's management might actually be - and to whom management might actually be accountable to. Can't say it shines a particularly flattering light on my hometown.

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