Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

What Happened

From the moment of Israel (“Izzy”) Asper’s personal initiative to create a Canadian museum dedicated to the Holocaust, to the inauguration of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in 2014, the CMHR has been the focus of debate, dispute and dissent. This case study focuses on the controversy surrounding allegations of interference with curatorial independence of the CMHR by the Harper government between 2008 and 2014, and on the unique vulnerability of ‘ideas museums’ and human rights to instrumentalization by state interests.

At the core of the debate are disputes about what counts as a human right and who gets to make this decision, and about Canada’s role in the rights revolution.


The CMHR as a human rights museum offers a transactional space that transcends national and political interests. (Carter, 2015).

Although other public cultural institutions are dedicated to aspects of human rights, the CMHR is unique and singular in its scope and aspiration. For example, institutions in Washington, Jerusalem, Kigali, Liverpool and Senegal focus on specific events and human rights atrocities, namely the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and slavery. On the other hand, museums in Mexico City and Los Angeles focus on modern and rational approaches to institutions that promote progress and tolerance, but do not focus on particular historical events. The CMHR attempts to integrate historical events, incidents, and ideas into a broad, engaged narrative that tracks the evolution of human rights both at the international level and more principally in the Canadian context.

In 2008, the federal government announced that the CMHR would become a national museum and that the government would assume responsibility for certain operating costs.

In early 2009, the new Content Advisory Committee (CAC), an independent group of human rights scholars, specialists and leaders was created and began to plan a public engagement process. The CAC’s final report was delivered in May 2010 and reflected the “conversational exercise” that occurred between the CAC and Canadians who participated in that process, mainly through national consultations and dialogues (Norman, 2015).

Shortly afterwards, the President and CEO of the museum, Stuart Murray, created a human rights advisory committee that would continue to provide independent and expert advice directly to Murray as the museum’s CEO. This committee would provide a sounding board for museum content and ensure expertise for peer review.

By 2012, the Harper government was actively re-imagining Canada and its contributions to the world, with a very different approach to human rights and its history than had been previously taken. The CMHR became a tool for the Conservatives to realign human rights and history to a world view more consistent with their own.

The Harper push to positivity 

The first public indication of the forthcoming reorientation appeared in a 2012 video interview with the WFP News Café by James Moore, the Minister of Canadian Heritage. Moore said he had “repeatedly” cautioned Stuart Murray and the board of directors that the museum should not become “a source of division for this country.” Further, he stated that taxpayers are not going to “pump in $21 million per year… If it’s seen as a perpetual source of division… that will not be tolerated."

Observers saw Moore’s comments as a signal of the Harper government’s approach in developing a positive and sanitized version of human rights (Norman, 2015).

Next, Tory insider and Harper fundraiser, Eric Hughes, was appointed as Chairman to the CMHR in 2012. He went on record with his views that the museum had “overachieved, sometimes, the critical stories” and that more balance and positivity was required (CBC News, 2012). CMHR’s exhibits on Northern Ireland, Darfur, and the slums of India were replaced by “didactic-light” stories on bullying, Armenian orphans, and Francophone and Sikh rights in Canada (Fallding, 2015).

Two traditional Conservative issues, assisted suicide and abortion, were also the target of attempts to change the museum’s content. The Conservative government had taken a strong position before the Supreme Court of Canada Carter case that the Criminal Code should not be amended to permit physician-assisted suicide. Two cases that were referenced in the 2013 gallery -- Rodriguez (the first Canadian assisted suicide decision that predated Carter) and Morgentaler (the Supreme Court of Canada case on abortion) -- were both removed from the a part of the gallery called the Debate Table and the content itself was changed before inauguration (Busby, 2015).

Further, CMHR commissioned a short blog by Veronica Strong-Boag, a noted Canadian historian, for International Women’s Day. The article was approved and posted on March 4, 2014. It was subsequently yanked because of a one-line comment that was critical of the Conservative government (Strong-Boag, 2014). 

The push to positivity was further evidenced in the treatment of issues involving Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Questions were raised about whether Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples should be treated as genocide and specifically whether the museum was the right institution to make that determination.

The title of a 2013 gallery on missing and murdered Indigenous women, originally entitled ‘Stolen Sisters: Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women’, was changed in the inaugural exhibit to ‘From Sorrow to Strength: Aboriginal Women and the Right to Security and Justice’. The first title’s use of the words ‘stolen sisters’ was inspired by an influential 2004 Amnesty International report that helped to change the conversation in Canada about missing and murdered indigenous women. In the second version, that reference was removed. The first title had explicitly asserted the connection between violence against indigenous women and interconnected, long-standing patterns of discrimination and impoverishment. In contrast, the inaugural text removed the assertion that there is enduring patterns of discrimination, impoverishment, and police inaction (Busby, 2015).

The push back

There were growing concerns over tensions between the Harper government and the Asper family, who continued to have a significant role in the development of the museum, and who were working closely with the Friends of the Museum (Norman, 36). These tensions would later escalate in the period leading up to the museum’s inauguration. Despite the fact that the previously noted changes had been made to the exhibits, anonymous sources within the museum stated that there were additional efforts to change content leading up to inauguration, but that they were successfully resisted by Murray and/or members of the CMHR team. Murray’s was not renewed in November 2014 and commentators have noted that Murray’s removal and Harper’s last minute refusal to attend the inauguration were signals of the Harper regime’s political dissatisfaction with the museum (Eliadis and Norman, 2014; Lett, 2014).

A new approach?

The 2015 general election offered an opportunity to the Liberal Party of Canada to offer a new vision. On the issue of independence, in a response to a questionnaire from the Canadian Museums Association, the Liberal government stated that:

With a Liberal government, Canadians will no longer be subject to the Harper government’s confrontational and authoritarian approach. We will fulfill our responsibilities as decision‐makers, but only after carefully listening to knowledgeable experts and professionals such as you. One of our guiding principles will be to restore a healthy arm’s‐length relationship between the federal administration and cultural institutions.  

The Liberals promised to improve financial support for Canada’s national cultural institutions. In 2016 they announced new injections of $33.5 million for 2016, and a further $72.4 million in the following four years for operational and capital costs of Canada’s six national museums.

The funding is critically important for Canada’s cultural institutions, especially for the government’s relationship with Canada’s newest national museum. There have been no reports of interference in the CMHR’s independence since 2015, but it will be important to maintain vigilance over governments in the future and over the temptation to interfere in the CMHR which serves as a valuable platform and civic space for the many “difficult conversations” that human rights encourages us to engage in as part of our shared debate and discourse about social justice.


2003      Death of Israel Asper. Asper family continues the work of bringing the museum to life in partnership with Friends of the Museum.

2008      The federal government announces that the CMHR will become a national museum through amendments to the Museums Act. Groundbreaking ceremony takes place.   

2009      New Content Advisory Committee (CAC) struck.

2010      CAC delivers its final report. Amendments to the Museum Act come into force on August 10, officially making the CMHR a national museum.

2011      Construction begins. A human rights advisory committee is created who report directly to the President and CEO.

2012      Minister James Moore underscores the importance of “positive stories”—stories creating divisions “will not be tolerated”                   

              Eric Hughes, a Harper fundraiser, is appointed as the CMHR Chair. Hughes states that the museum’s content that was under development may be overly critical and not sufficiently positive or balanced.  

2013     Content that had been developed on indigenous issues, abortion, and physician-assisted death is significantly changed or removed. 

2014    In the months leading to inauguration, museum staff are out under renewed pressure to change more content. Murray reportedly refuses. Inauguration takes place in September and Murray discovers his contract will not be renewed in November.  

2015     Liberals promise to restore a healthy arm’s‐length relationship between the federal administration and cultural institutions.  

2016      Liberals announce new injections of $33.5 million for 2016 and a further $72.4 million in the following four years for operational and capital costs of Canada’s six national museums. 

Role or Position

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the first national museum outside the Ottawa National Capital Region and the first to be dedicated to human rights. CMHR aims to be a national hub for human rights learning and discovery, and human rights leadership. The museum is a national and international destination—a centre of learning where Canadians and people from around the world can engage in discussion and commit to taking action against hate and oppression. At the time of writing, the museum had won more than 30 local, national, and international awards for design and construction, planning, exhibits, new media and communications, and education.

Implications and Consequences

Censorship and freedom of speech: The CMHR was subject to political pressure during the Harper regime to select “positive” stories and downplay the treatment of issues that were inconsistent with the Harper government’s position. Some exhibits were removed entirely or the content was altered. The Museum should have the right to inform Canadian citizens of notable cases involving controversial topics.

Abuse of Power: The Harper government appears to have interfered directly or indirectly in the curatorial independence of the museum, seeking to align exhibitions and content with its political interests. The decision not to renew Stuart Murray’s contract as President and CEO shortly after his alleged refusal to change content close to inauguration raises concerns about abuse of power and the further politicization of human rights. 

Published: May 31, 2017