National Art Gallery’s decolonization strategy questioned after staffers abruptly dismissed

It was not the meeting Greg Hill expected.

“I go into it cold not expecting anything like that,” the former Indigenous art curator at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa said. “I was anticipating a discussion I’ve wanted to have and trying to have for a long time. Trying to understand how we’re working together in the department of Indigenous ways and decolonization and I was actually a little bit happy to be able to get into this but it didn’t go that way.”

Within minutes of the virtual meeting last month, Hill had been told by management to return his cell phone and his email account would be disabled.

After more than two decades of service at the gallery, he had been effectively terminated and his unionized position made redundant.

And Hill said none of it added up.

“Our department is still critically understaffed, it just does not make sense how one could be declared surplus in those kinds of circumstances.”

He is one of four senior gallery staffers who were suddenly dismissed without explanation in November.

Hill, who is Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River located 100 km southwest of Toronto, believes in his case it is because he started raising uncomfortable questions about the direction of the institution on decolonization.

In a nutshell, he said it is one thing to make grand vision statements on Indigenizing and decolonizing the national gallery but staffers and the arts community want to see concrete action.

“If we’re a department of Indigenous ways and decolonization, how are we decolonizing, what is meant by Indigenous ways, how are we going to define and work with that within our own department? So, it was frustrating and very difficult.”

Steven Loft, vice-president of the gallery’s department of Indigenous ways and decolonization which was created earlier this year, confirmed Hill’s position has been eliminated but takes issue with the accusation that not enough employees are working on Indigenization.

“It’s the opposite, we have more Indigenous people working at the gallery than we’ve ever had in the past and there’s going to be more,” he said. “Not just curatorial expertise but also policy, strategy, community engagement and relationship building.”

The layoffs and Hill’s public concerns are creating waves in the arts community and claims have been made in media that the gallery has become a toxic work environment in recent months where staff are afraid to raise concerns out of fears of reprisal.

Loft, also from Six Nations, would not address these allegations specifically but did say the types of change the gallery is trying implement in terms of Indigenization and decolonization can be challenging for both staff and management at times.

He added management is working hard to create a healthy environment in the department.

“We’re having great conversations with our staff and making sure they understand the direction the gallery is going but also that we’re creating the kind of space where they feel their voices are upheld and uplifted.”

The national gallery is a Crown corporation which falls under the department of Canadian heritage.

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has said he wants answers on some of the issues that have been raised in the media and recently sent a letter to the gallery’s board of trustees outlining his concerns.

APTN News asked both the minister’s office and the gallery for a copy of the letter but was refused.

Either way, NDP MP and heritage critic Peter Julian said the Trudeau government needs to be asking some tough questions on how the public money the gallery receives is being spent.

“The funding that has been applied,” he said. “What is the process the National Gallery of Canada is going through for decolonization? What is the process that is happening for ensuring that Indigenous artists have the place that they should have at the national gallery? All of that is very unclear so that oversight and the funding coming from the federal government means that those questions need to be asked and answers need to be given.”

Contribute Button