Canadian Museum for Human Rights officials knew about racism concerns for years, former employee says | CBC News

A former employee of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights says she was “livid” when the museum’s CEO said claims of racism at the institution came as a surprise.

Employees there have been fighting for change for years, said Thiané Diop.

“I was like, stop lying. You know — you and I both know — that these conversations have already been going on and there hasn’t been enough concrete change, because people are still coming forward with similar stories,” she said. 

Diop worked at the Winnipeg-based museum for four years and said she started the recent #cmhrstoplying hashtag after some people began sharing their experiences with the museum anonymously on Instagram. 

Those social media posts prompted the national museum to issue a public statement from CEO John Young on Tuesday night, saying museum administration plans to reach out to staff and volunteers who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of colour to listen to their experiences and concerns.

WATCH | Thiané Diop calls out the Canadian Museum for Human Rights:

A former employee of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights says she was “livid” when the museum’s CEO said claims of racism at the institution came as a surprise. 0:30

Diop said she felt the statement implied the museum was hearing these concerns for the first time and created the hashtag to challenge that. 

In one public social media post that used the hashtag, former CMHR employee 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. 

Another former employee, Shania Pruden, said in a post she was told she wasn’t allowed to wear a beaded key chain she received as a gift from an elder while working there. 

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. (Travis Golby/CBC)

In an interview on Wednesday, Young told CBC News the level of concern raised on social media comes as a surprise to many people working at the museum, which identifies its mission as “[enhancing] the public’s understanding and [promoting] 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,” Young said. “It’s clear that there’s some shortcomings here in the institution.”

CEO John Young acknowledges there are shortcomings in dealing with racism at the museum, which is dedicated to the principles of human rights. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

But Diop said she experienced racism from other staff, visitors and stakeholders that she identified to management.

“I tried to address it, and that fell on deaf ears,” she said, adding other Black, Indigenous or people of colour at the museum had similar experiences with management.

“For many of us, that was exactly the reason we ended up leaving.” 

Ironic but not surprising: Diop 

Diop said she appreciates the irony of a museum dedicated to promoting human rights being accused of racism, but she say it shouldn’t be surprising. Racism at cultural institutions is not a new problem, she said, pointing to a recent article by CBC’s Amanda Parris about the issue

“The thing that definitely made it more difficult for me to go to work every day is that you walk into a building that is purporting to hold up human rights and dignity and equity and all these things,” Diop said. 

Thiané Diop says she appreciates the irony of a museum dedicated to promoting human rights being accused of racism, but says it shouldn’t be surprising. 0:56

“And in my job, that was something that I would be conveying to visitors and trying to be passionate about and to get other people excited about, and then I’m facing all of these situations behind the scenes.”

El Jones, a former Winnipegger who is a poet, professor and activist now living in Halifax, said the whole matter demonstrates how racism thrives in Canada.

“I think in many ways, that encapsulates the kind of conversation we’re having where Canada’s face is human rights, multicultural, polite — and then underneath that is anti-Black racism,” she said. 

Poet, activist and professor El Jones says the CMHR situation illustrates broader issues around racism in Canada. (Sinisa Jolic)

The stories coming from former CMHR employees are very troubling, given that it’s a national museum that is supposed to represent “a particular narrative” about Canada and human rights, Jones said.

“For a place that welcomes people in to talk about human rights and then doesn’t even respect the rights of its own workers, I think that’s very significant.”

A statement from federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said his office is aware of the allegations of abuse and institutional racism at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and is in contact with the parties involved to make sure it’s addressed. 

“Our government expects our national museums to demonstrate the highest standards of inclusiveness, social awareness and respect, whether it pertains to the design of their learning programs or their management and hiring practices,” he said. 

“I want to be clear: The physical and mental integrity of staff members should be prioritized.”

In a statement sent to 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 use the results of those reviews to develop an action plan that will be publicly shared, along with the results of the independent review and the audit.

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