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People walk past the Canadian Museum of History on Saturday, March 14, 2020 in Gatineau, Que.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Mark O’Neill, the president of the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum, is on leave as the institutions investigate allegations of workplace harassment.

The board of trustees of the Crown corporation that oversees the two museums said it first received complaints this summer and hired an independent investigator, Michelle Flaherty, to review them. The board said it could not elaborate on the complaints because of privacy law.

“The government of Canada and the board of trustees have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to workplace harassment,” a board spokesperson said in a statement.

Mr. O’Neill has been head of the museums since 2011. They received a total of $81-million in federal funding in the 2018-19 fiscal year.

A spokesperson for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents the unionized staff at the history museum, said the union did not have comment because the workplace complaints did not arise from its members.

The investigation is the second to hit a national museum this year. In June, current and former employees at the Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg raised concerns of systemic racism, homophobia and workplace issues at their institution. An independent review detailed the claims and the museum’s board issued an apology. Chief executive officer John Young resigned and was replaced by human-rights lawyer Isha Khan.

As well, complaints of workplace harassment have rocked the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the office of the Governor-General.

The office of Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said he has spoken directly to national museums about upholding safe workplace standards.

“The situation at the Canadian Museum of History is of great concern and we are in touch with its board of trustees, which has taken immediate action to respond to the complaints," said Camille Gagné-Raynauld, spokesperson for the minister.

The investigation at the history museum is taking place in a charged atmosphere for museums across North America as their boards respond to demands that these traditionally hierarchical institutions keep pace with social developments and a rapidly changing work environment.

“There is a breakdown of the old system,” museum consultant Gail Lord said in an e-mail. “Workplaces are changing thanks to demands of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and Indigeneity. Museum human resource policies and procedures have not kept pace with this new world, especially not providing training to board, staff and leadership. Staff is frustrated because their complaints are not acted on – so they turn to both social and mainstream media.”

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