Silencing or Strategic Manoeuvring? Professor Strong-Boag, International Women's Day and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights
For the past three days, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled with a series of re-posts and re-tweets related to Professor Veronica Strong-Boag's blogpost about International Women's Day (IWD) for the (still-to-be-opened) Canadian Museum for Human Rights. According to the detailed report on ActiveHistory.ca, containing Strong-Boag's post and commentary about the story, she had been commissioned by the Museum to write a post about IWD for their collective blog. When she submitted the blogpost, it was initially approved, and then withdrawn when the communications department expressed concern over her comment on the current Conservative government. As a result, historians from coast to coast have been decrying the "censorship" and "silencing" of Strong-Boag by the museum (and speculating that the current federal government might have had a hand in this).
Shortly after the ActiveHistory piece was published, Franca Iacovetta, professor of Canadian history at the University of Toronto, and the current president of the International Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, published a condemnation of "the effort to silence Canada’s leading women’s historian" on the Berks website. Since that time, PressProgress has added their voice into the mix, commenting on the irony of a human rights museum censoring a commissioned blog. Both of these pieces have also received extensive coverage on Facebook and Twitter.
I have a somewhat different take on these events from many of my historian colleagues, and would posit a working theory. I suspect that Prof. Strong-Boag might have known full well (or at least strongly suspected) that her blogpost for International Women's Day, which only includes one reference to Canadian governments past or present and does so to highlight the "anti-woman record" of "Canada's Conservative government", was never going to be approved by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The museum has been mired in controversies and funding crises for years - even before it has opened to the public. The people who commissioned the post probably were hoping for a broad overview of the history of International Women's Day, or perhaps a post that included some discussion of how Canada's governments (past and present) have dealt with women's issues. This is not what they received, and someone probably balked at the fact that the sole reference in the post to Canada's governments was a partisan attack on the current Conservative administration. An offer to add more detail to support the assessment of the current government as "anti-woman" was probably even less welcomed.
Here's where I think the story gets interesting. By being "censored", Strong-Boag has ensured that her message gets diffused to a much wider readership than the original blogpost itself likely would have been. It is a fairly standard social movement tactic to try to create a situation (a "grievance" to use the social movement scholarly jargon) that will lend itself to media exposure, with the movement able to cast itself as the aggrieved party. This helps to generate broader-based support for the movement, which is crucial to resource mobilization. I very strongly suspect that the vast majority of people who have commented and re-posted this story have never before read the blog of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and would not have seen the post had it simply been posted there. I had to scroll back to August 2013 to find a post on the CMHR blog that had a comment on it. It also isn't a blog with a rich history of guest postings - only six names of guest bloggers appear on their contributors roll. The ActiveHistory.ca website, on the other hand, has a widespread readership among Canadian historians and engenders a lot of commentary. The Berks is the main conference on women's history in North America. Far from being silenced, the decision by the CMHR to remove the post as written from their site has meant that Strong-Boag got a series of major platforms to attack the Harper government's record on women's rights, and along the way to damage the CMHR's reputation and cast suspicion (possibly warranted, although this is unproven) of a sinister federal hand behind the removal of the blogpost. Meanwhile, there is no post for International Women's Day on the CMHR blog.
To be perfectly clear, I don't disagree with Strong-Boag's stance on the Harper government's policy record. But nor am I surprised that the museum would have shied away from her post. Strong-Boag engaged in a direct partisan attack. A paragraph discussing past-and-present Canadian governments' decidedly mixed record on women's issues (perhaps including Trudeau-era restrictions on the National Action Committee on the Status of Women's lobbying efforts that were linked to their government funding, or the successive failures of a series of federal governments to make any meaningful progress on the childcare agenda) might possibly have made it past the communications officers at the CMHR. At the very least, it would have been harder for a communications officer to defend the removal of a blogpost that presented a more balanced critique of the less-than-stellar record of Canada's federal governments (Liberal and Conservative) on women's issues that placed the current claw-backs in their historical context. But to me, the section on the current government in the post as currently written reads as an isolated (if deserved) swipe at the government of the day and explicitly partisan.
If this was a deliberate strategic move on Strong-Boag's part, it has worked beautifully, so kudos to her for getting her message disseminated. Far more people have read her account of IWD than likely would have ever seen it on the CMHR blog. I just find it a little bit disingenuous to speak of silencing and censorship in what appears to me to be a case of a museum trying not to appear to be overtly partisan in its public communications. Even if it could have been claimed that this was a "guest post", the museum would have been held accountable in the media, and with their various funders, for the content that appeared.
UPDATE (March 9, 3:10 PM): The story is now on the CBC website, with additional commentary from Strong-Boag, and a reply from the museum's blog editor. Recommend this Post