EDMONTON—An employee of the Royal Alberta Museum is accusing it of deeply entrenched institutional racism, cultural insensitivity toward sacred Indigenous artifacts and protocols, and of dismissing her education and expertise because she is an Indigenous woman.
Paulina Johnson, who is from Samson Cree Nation, has filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission over what she says was a toxic work environment that left her feeling abused, traumatized and suffering from depression and anxiety.
“I resented being Indigenous for the first time in my life,” Johnson said of her time as a community engagement adviser at the RAM.
“I felt even if I had the education, it’s not even about being equal, it’s about being acknowledged and respected. I didn’t get that,” Johnson said. “So how much do I need to give them of myself? Do I need to get another PhD? Do I have to get five of them before being respected? Even if did all that, it still wouldn’t have been enough.”
She is currently on unpaid leave from her role at the RAM and is working as an assistant professor of Indigenous Studies at Concordia University of Edmonton.
A spokesperson for the RAM said they could not comment on the matter.
“The fair and equitable treatment of employees is a priority for our organization,” said RAM spokesperson Oksana Gowin. “To protect the privacy of our employees, we do not comment on individual employment matters.”
This isn’t the first complaint the museum has faced, from Johnson and others.
Nor is Johnson’s current human rights complaint, which she filed in January, the first grievance she’s made about her employment at the RAM. She previously filed a respectful workplace complaint through her union to the Alberta Public Service Commission.
In that complaint, she made 36 allegations of workplace misconduct against seven individuals, including an employee who worked under her, her direct supervisor and the museum’s executive director, Chris Robinson.
Among her allegations were that employees actively prevented her from performing certain duties connected to other Indigenous cultures because she is Cree, withheld information from her so she couldn’t properly do her job and took credit for work she did. She believes the root cause of the alleged misconduct was racism.
In its June 4 decision, the Alberta Public Service Commission found that all of Johnson’s allegations against her fellow employees were unfounded.
A subsequent investigation was launched after Johnson’s subordinate also filed a respectful workplace complaint against Johnson. That investigation ruled with Johnson’s complainant.
Johnson appealed the finding.
Johnson was first hired as a community engagement adviser in July 2017 at the RAM to utilize her expertise in Indigenous protocol and customs when moving sacred materials to the museum’s new downtown location, which opened in 2018.
One of her main responsibilities was ensuring protocol was followed in the move of Manitou Asinîy, a meteorite considered sacred to certain Indigenous peoples, from the museum’s old building.
Almost immediately, Johnson said, she was uncomfortable with what she perceived to be disrespect for Indigenous customs.
She took issue with how Manitou Asinîy’s installation was originally only going to be in English and French because of the additional cost to include Cree.
Johnson said she “fought” management to incorporate the Cree words, but started to wonder if she was hired not because of her cultural expertise and lived experience, but because of her race.
“My first thought was, was I hired to move this because I’m Indigenous?”
She said she felt museum staff pressured and manipulated Indigenous communities into giving up their sacred materials by saying it was the only way they would be protected.
Johnson continued to raise her concerns when she saw what she calls breaches of cultural protocol. When she heard about assessments on some sacred objects that were moving forward, she asked which Elders had been consulted. She says she was told no one was consulted because those conversations were put on the “back burner.”
“For me I was like, ‘How dare you?’” Johnson said. “‘I’m not gonna let you guys walk all over me.’
“I tried to sit them down and was like, ‘Why am I here? I’m not your token.’”
Another example of what Johnson says was disrespect toward Indigenous traditions occurred when working with sacred materials while some of her colleagues were wearing what she describes as “tight, clingy” clothing. She told them the Indigenous traditions she was taught say women must wear modest clothing when dealing with sacred materials and medicines, which is why ribbon skirts are long and flowy.
She says her supervisor, who is white, dismissed her suggestion.
“I was like, you are the assistant curator of Indigenous studies telling an Indigenous woman what you can and cannot do within her culture,” Johnson said.
She said there are also human bones of 70 Indigenous individuals sitting in a “sacred restricted area” at the museum’s old building and that the RAM didn’t properly consult with the communities those individuals were from about moving the bones in the first place.
“Two of them are 10,000 years old, covered in red ochre,” Johnson said. “They’re still at the old museum from the last time I heard. And no one really knows about them.”
A theme that Johnson said was universal at the museum was the prioritization of Blackfoot materials over other Indigenous materials that belonged to the Cree, Saulteaux and Assiniboine.
“It became very clear that everyone within Community Engagement and Indigenous Studies were completely pro-Blackfoot. All other sacred ceremonial materials were simply, “non-Blackfoot,” Johnson wrote in her original respectful workplace complaint.
Johnson listed other complaints that she believes are grounded in racism, such as when she says a colleague told her “you must live off white women’s tears,” or when her supervisor allegedly suggested she was too young for her position.
Johnson has taken medical leave from the RAM three times because of the stress, anxiety and shame she says she experienced there.
She said she had her first panic attack at work on Oct. 11, 2017 during a meeting between her department and the Confederacy of Treaty 6 Elders.
“The Elders invited were upset regarding the consultations of Manitou Asinîy and told me that I was a ‘traitor’ and was being used as a ‘puppet’ for the RAM,” Johnson wrote in her initial complaint.
She says her colleagues offered her no support and looked down on her “condescendingly.” She said she felt she was being publicly shamed for something that wasn’t her fault.
“I cried in the bathroom during the break and I felt that I was on my own with no immediate support. I felt my role as an Indigenous person was compromised and my being and spirit were demoralized and subjected to abuse,” Johnson wrote in her complaint.
In August 2018, Johnson said she had a mental breakdown at work and told a colleague “I can’t do this anymore.” She said the colleague told her it wasn’t the first time it had occurred in their department.
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Judy Half, a Cree doctoral student at the University of Calgary who previously worked at the museum, also said the “toxic” institutional racism was a major factor in her departure.
Half, who is from Saddle Lake First Nation, was hired as an Indigenous liaison officer at the museum in 2008. She said a workplace rife with institutional racism was a major factor in her departure from the RAM in 2017. She is now pursuing a PhD at the University of Calgary.
She said she was the first Indigenous person her department hired, but she didn’t feel her time or knowledge was valued.
“We were always left out of the picture,” Half said.
“They don’t want to hear the local knowledge. So they hire people from the states or B.C. or eastern Canada,” she added.
She said she, too, started raising concerns about what she felt was a bias toward Blackfoot culture and experienced retaliation as a result.
Half said she started being intentionally left out of meetings and held back from promotions.
“It was because I was becoming educated and I was understanding the real issues of the lack of relationship and respect they have for the Plains Cree,” Half said. “That’s the mentality. That’s the institutional racism.”
It’s not the first time the museum has been accused of institutional racism by an Indigenous person.
Miranda Jimmy, an Edmonton activist and co-founder of Reconciliation in Solidarity Edmonton, wrote a blog post nearly a year ago titled “Continuing to RAM Colonization Down our Throats.”
She said with the museum’s reopening, she hoped they would use it as an opportunity to “acknowledge its own founding story based on stolen artifacts and pioneering settlement.”
When the museum reopened, they said they were committed to reconciliation and especially the “meaningful relationships we have with Indigenous communities in Alberta.”
When Jimmy visited, she said her hopes were “shattered.”
In her blog post, she said Indigenous Peoples had no meaningful role in the museum’s renewal. She said she was approached to sit on an Indigenous Advisory Panel, but it was so close to the reopening she felt they were more looking for an Indigenous person to validate the decisions they’d already made rather than provide meaningful guidance.
She said the truth of how many artifacts were acquired is not shared, noting they were mostly stolen or purchased at international auctions.
She adds the residential school exhibit is in an enclosed area that is easy to miss, and points out how the exhibit had a trigger warning, but only in English and French.
“What about Indigenous survivors/language speakers who may also be triggered?” Jimmy writes, adding that she believes the museum took this approach to ensure the exhibit “wasn’t upsetting in any way to their paying settler customers.” (Indigenous visitors are permitted free entry at the museum).
She points out how some items at the museum, such as the Sunwapta Broadcasting Totem Pole, are blatant cultural appropriation, as totem poles are cultural practices of Pacific Northwest First Nations.
The treatment of the sacred materials, which Johnson said has left her traumatized, is the most important aspect of her complaint, she said. She takes particular issue with the fact that there are allegedly still an untold number of sacred materials kept in a “back vault” at the museum’s old building.
“I want all those materials to go home,” Johnson said. “They belong back in Saskatchewan, because they were stolen in the 1960s, wrongfully. And we can do that, we have the ability.”
Regardless of the outcome of her human rights complaint, Johnson said her experience at the RAM has been eye-opening both personally and professionally.
She said it’s much harder to break down what she calls colonial power structures than she realized, and still has some resentment toward her own culture because she feels Elders didn’t stick up for her in meetings when they should have.
She said she’s never been a confrontational person, but is now more outspoken.
“It definitely made me think you need to use your voice more, you need to speak up, you need to set boundaries and let them know you’re making me uncomfortable,” Johnson said.
“This makes me sound like that trope of the angry Indigenous woman. But I’d rather be that than be silenced.”
Johnson said she was told the Alberta Human Rights Commission is expecting the RAM’s response to the complaint by Monday.