The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is weathering a censorship allegation after deleting a blog post it commissioned from a Tyrell Historical Medal-winning Canadian historian.
To coincide with International Women's Day, the Winnipeg-based museum asked Veronica Strong-Boag, a historian specializing in the history of women and children in Canada, to pen a blog post in her area of expertise.
The post appeared on March 4, but was removed hours later after museum staff deemed a passage criticizing the federal Conservative government unacceptable.
The offending passage
"In 2014, Canada's Conservative government left its anti-woman record unmentioned... as it dedicated IWD week to the 'valuable contribution of women entrepreneurs.' "
-- selected text from a blog post authored by historian Veronica Strong-Boag. The post was deleted. A footnoted version is online at activehistory.ca.
The passage in question described the Conservatives as having an "anti-woman record." She said museum staff first asked her to back up that claim, but ultimately rejected a footnoted posting as a partisan statement.
In a letter to Strong-Boag, museum communications director Angela Cassie apologized for failing to explain what was expected from blog-post authors.
"We will more clearly ask that guest blogs consist of anecdotal accounts of first-person experiences that illuminate human rights themes," Cassie wrote. "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."
In a response letter, Strong-Boag called Cassie's statement "naive and pedagogically unsound" for a museum "supposedly dedicated" to promoting human rights.
"It suggests that human rights are almost purely about entertainment and that authors can pretend impartiality in dealing with them," Strong-Boag wrote.
Strong-Boag said when she was asked to back up her "anti-woman" claim, she cited the Conservatives' cancellation of plans for a national child-care program, cuts to Status of Women Canada, the prohibition of civil servants taking pay-equity complaints to the Human Rights Commission, the denial of international funding for abortion and cuts to public services that employ and serve women.
Strong-Boag said she was surprised when the post was still rejected.
"As long as we indicate where our evidence comes from and provide access to that evidence, I can't imagine there would be any difficulty," she said in an interview, speaking over the phone from Peterborough, Ont.
She characterized the museum's decision as an act of censorship and said a simple disclaimer on the museum's blog, noting the opinions of the authors are not those of the institution, would have sufficed instead.
Maureen Fitzhenry, the museum's media-relations manager, rejected the assertion the museum censored anyone or impinged upon academic freedom.
"At a university, of course that's a legitimate discussion. We are a museum. There's a legitimate conversation about academic freedom among our own staff. In this case, it was a guest blog," she said.
"This isn't a question of academic freedom, it's a question of what we think we are wanting for our blog posts."
Strong-Boag is a visiting scholar at Trent University, a professor emerita at the University of British Columbia, a former president of the Canadian Historical Association and the 2012 winner of the Tyrell award for outstanding work in Canadian history.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which is slated to open this fall, has dealt with concerns relating to academic freedom before. In 2012, departed staff claimed the museum's content had been watered down following a board directive to feature more positive Canadian stories.
The allegations stemmed from a decision to cancel plans for an atrocities gallery in favour of making more room for domestic human rights stories.
"People said this (atrocities) gallery felt like a little shop of horrors," Cassie said at the time.
Departed staff who had scholarly or academic backgrounds may not have understood what prospective museum patrons desire in terms of content and presentation, she said.