What do you do if you’re a Manitoba teacher charged with educating students about human rights, but you don’t actually believe everybody should have them?
For a period of time lasting from 2015 to 2017, you could take your students to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, where the price of admission for a class trip included the right to request certain groups’ rights be left off the official tour or even blocked from students’ view.
Tour guides who worked for the Museum during that time period say that religious schools commonly asked that LGBTQ rights be excluded from the tour their students received… and that management instructed guides to comply with the schools’ requests.
Staffers say that students of all ages, including high school students, were shielded from LGBTQ-inclusive content.
Special visitors such as diplomats and donors were also given modified tours with LGBTQ content filtered out to avoid offending conservative religious sensibilities.
Former program developer Gabriela Agüero told the CBC that she tried to speak up against the practice, only to see her concerns were dismissed:
When I complained about it, [management said], “Well, that’s what we request, and we have to honor the requests from the schools because they pay us for those tours.” It was horrendous because then I had to go sit with my gay friends on staff and tell them I did that. It was a horrific sense of guilt and very painful.
More painful still was the experience of tour guides who were themselves members of the LGBTQ community, commanded by their employer — an organization whose mandate involves preserving and presenting human rights history — to erase their own rights from the narrative.The practice came to an end in 2017 after an incident in which one of the museum’s LGBTQ employees was asked to use their body to physically block marriage-equality content from visitors’ view.
At that time, marriage equality had been the law of the land across Canada for more than a decade.
Museum spokesperson Maureen Fitzhenry says they no longer accept requests for specially tailored content from schools or other visiting groups. It’s not clear whether tours are still being modified to avoid challenging the biases of visiting donors and diplomats.
But with the institution already under fire after reports of discrimination and racist content recently came to light, that may not be enough to repair the organization’s tarnished image.
CEO John Young has tried to start the museum’s long climb back to legitimacy with the announcement that he won’t seek reappointment at the end of his term, coming up in August. In an internal e-mail, Young took responsibility for the institution’s failings:
The idea that the museum has been intentionally hiding LGBTQ2* content from visitors is particularly painful. While this is not the museum’s policy, clearly there have been instances that are at odds with our ‘come and see approach.’ That is a failure on our part, and as the head of the museum, accountability for these shortcomings at the museum lie on my shoulders, and I acknowledge the consequences that follow from that.
The organization has hired Winnipeg lawyer Laurelle Harris to conduct an external review of employees’ complaints and provide recommendations on how to better reflect the values one might expect from a human rights museum — such as, you know, actual respect for human rights.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Dorothy for the link)