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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights incoming president and chief executive officer Isha Khan poses for a portrait, Aug. 10, 2020, after being named as it's next leader.

David Lipnowski/The Globe and Mail

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, embroiled in controversy over allegations of a racist, toxic workplace, has named a new president and chief executive officer.

Human rights lawyer Isha Khan, former executive director and senior counsel for the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, will begin in the position next week. Khan, 46, has no museum experience, but has worked for years as an advocate for human rights, working with organizational change and workplace culture. Most recently, she was appointed by the Minister of Public Safety to co-ordinate a review of conditions in federal penitentiaries.

She joins the museum at a difficult time. An independent report released last week found that racism is “pervasive and systemic” within the federal museum. The third-party investigation was ordered after public allegations of racism, censorship (suppressing the museum’s LGBTQ content), and inaction on the part of management in dealing with allegations of sexual harassment.

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“I think that dismantling systemic racism, discrimination, oppression has to be very deliberate and thoughtful work,” Khan said in an interview on Monday, shortly after Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault announced her appointment. The announcement indicated she will take “decisive action for change” and ensure the museum is diverse and welcoming for all employees.

In the interview, Khan said discrimination, abuse and harassment will not be tolerated. “I’m going to work with the staff to bring about some change within the walls and build the trust of the community around us.”

Khan was born and raised in Winnipeg, where she earned her undergraduate degree before studying law at the University of Victoria. She has lived and worked in Calgary, and has been back in Winnipeg since 2007. She is the board chair of the United Way of Greater Winnipeg and a founder of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women’s Winnipeg chapter. Her family is of Pakistani origin.

“It’s 2020, and it’s still pretty unfortunate that it’s remarkable that there is a woman of colour in a leadership position like this, that that’s something that we talk about,” Khan said. “But that said, I’m a realist, and I think my appointment does break down some barriers, and if I can be part of that, if I can be part of modelling what a representative work force should look like or having diversity in leadership positions, I’m pretty happy about that. I feel proud.”

Ms. Khan’s appointment follows the departure of John Young, who had been scheduled to step down as CMHR president and CEO in August. He resigned early after public criticism began on social media when the museum tweeted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The museum was also accused of altering tours on request from some religious schools, omitting LGBTQ content.

Ms. Khan declined to comment on the specifics of the report, but noted that she will follow its recommendations, and do so with transparency.

The report, titled “Rebuilding the Foundation,” revealed that staff at the museum who persisted in efforts to address racism in the workplace were penalized, some branded by management as “troublemakers,” “difficult” or “angry.” Employees who were Black, Indigenous and people of colour reported being passed over for promotion in favour of equally or less-qualified white candidates.

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The report said employees were subjected to racist treatment from visitors too, and management did not take action.

Staff were treated by management as being “over-sensitive” or emotionally weak for being unable to handle the discrimination, the report said.

One former employee, a Black woman who was about 20 when the harassment began, reported being stalked by a white museum member in his 60s. This went on for about two years.

The report found that LGBTQ content was hidden or omitted six times in 2017 and once in 2015.

It noted that the museum “neither explicitly acknowledged nor apologized for the racism perpetuated,” although it acknowledged that LGBTQ content was hidden, and apologized. “The apology has been viewed by many as tone deaf at best,” the report stated.

Its 44 recommendations include that the museum issue a “meaningful apology to Black and Indigenous people that is action-based.” It also recommends that a Black Canadian history tour be launched within 12 months, and that tours and programs with primarily Indigenous content be delivered only by Indigenous people. A number of recommendations call for training.

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A second phase of the review will further explore the extent to which sexism has been an issue at the museum, as well as gendered racism, and barriers to employment for people with disabilities.

“I think that if people understand and are really driven by the mandate of having a respectful, inclusive workplace, we can get through this,” Khan said. “That also means doing some work to identify what discrimination and harassment look like so people can call it out and know how to respond to it.”

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