Five current and former female employees at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights allege they’ve been sexually harassed by the same male colleague and say their complaints to human resources were dismissed.
The women, who’ve come forward to CBC News, allege the man, who works with visitors at the national museum in Winnipeg, has grabbed and touched them, stared at their genital areas and made inappropriate comments about them and other women for years.
Gabriela Agüero, a former program developer and tour guide, said she’s seen the man get close to women and objectify them. She said he would also repeatedly get close to her and ask her to go places, even when she told him no and asked him to stop inviting her.
She said he was allowed to keep working at the museum after an internal probe into his conduct. “It left us all traumatized because we all had to continue working with him, be in the elevators, in the lunchrooms, everywhere.”
Agüero, who said she left the museum after being bullied by her manager, said she went to the museum’s human resources department after the man allegedly clapped his hands and told a female employee much younger than him, “Oh you’re so hot” in a meeting while looking her up and down.
Agüero and the woman, Madeleine McLeod, now 26, went to HR together in 2018 to report the incident.
“And then essentially [the HR director] asked me [whether I thought] he maybe meant ‘I’m so hot because of the weather, like it was hot outside.’ So when she said that comment, I just already knew it’s not going to go anywhere,” McLeod said in a phone interview from Vancouver, adding the museum is normally very cold.
“I just felt really belittled by her, just the whole interview was not very pleasant. I ended up being really emotional and I actually thought of quitting right away because I thought I don’t want to work for the institution that promotes human rights, and they can’t even deal with such a basic human right.”
McLeod, who started working at the CMHR in 2017 and left last July, said before going to HR she told her manager about the incident, and his response was, “‘Oh not again,'” so I’m assuming that at that time, [the man] had previous warnings.”
CBC News reached out to the man on Facebook but hadn’t received a response as of publication.
A current museum employee said she has been harassed by the man, seen him harass new female staff and look at young visitors inappropriately.
“They have just been hired, looking at them in very inappropriate ways, touching them, feeling like he can do that,” she said.
CBC News has agreed not to identify the woman because she fears reprisals for speaking out.
The employee said multiple complaints have been made to HR about the man, investigations have been launched and an external lawyer was brought in to review the allegations.
She said she was shocked when she first started experiencing the behaviour at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
“How come these people cannot understand that you’re working in a place where you’re promoting rights for everyone, human rights?”
Union wants anti-harassment training
The union representing employees at the museum said it is aware of incidents of sexual harassment.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada said there have been some resolutions to complaints, but they are not always adequate for employees.
The union said it has approached management in the past before asking some members to file a grievance after not being satisfied with how HR handled complaints.
Three weeks ago, the union said, it made a proposal in contract talks with the museum to create mandatory anti-harassment training for all museum staff, including management, but those proposals were rejected.
“The union will continue to push for the anti-harassment training this week during contract negotiations, and we hope to see more openness from management on this proposal,” said Marianne Hladun, PSAC’s regional executive vice-president for the Prairies.
2 external reviews into harassment
Museum spokesperson Louise Waldman said while she was unable to comment on a particular case, the CMHR has twice hired an external lawyer to lead investigations into sexual harassment complaints.
“In both of those instances, we have accepted their findings and followed the recommendations provided.”
Waldman said all complaints of sexual harassment are handled under guidelines outlined in the CMHR’s Respectful Workplace Policy.
She said the museum requires all employees and managers to take mandatory respectful workplace training that it is reviewing and updating.
The allegations from the women come a week after CBC News revealed the museum would sometimes ask staff not to reveal content related to gay rights at the request of certain guests on tours, including religious school groups.
The employees said the practice was common for at least two years, and in one case a staff member from the LGBT community was asked to physically block a same-sex marriage display from a passing group.
After the story ran, the museum’s CEO, John Young, said he wouldn’t seek reappointment, and former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray resigned from the fundraising arm of the museum in protest.
The CMHR then issued a public apology a day later for excluding, and even in some cases hiding, LGBT content.
Federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement the government is committed to promoting healthy workplaces where harassment is not tolerated.
“We have zero tolerance for harassment, abuse or discrimination. Everybody deserves a healthy working environment. As mentioned before, we respect [CEO John] Young’s decision not to pursue a new term … and we hope the upcoming transition will be beneficial to both the museum’s educational mission and the dedicated staff of the CMHR.”
Last week, the CMHR announced the hiring of Winnipeg lawyer Laurelle Harris to investigate allegations of discrimination at the museum after former employees began posting stories earlier this month on social media about racism they say they experienced while working at the institution.
Agüero said she hopes that by speaking out, life will get better for women who still work there. “I’m always of the idea that there’s a hope for change…. We can change things together,” she said.
“Because of [the police killing of] George Floyd in the States and what happened, we have no right to leave things the way they were.”