a view of a large building: Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.


© ANDRE FORGET/QMI AGENCY
Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.

News that an investigation into harassment of staff and a “toxic environment” at the Canadian Museum of History came as no surprise to people intimate with the federal institution in Gatineau.

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One former employee, upon learning the museum’s board has hired Michelle Flaherty, an experienced mediator and arbitrator and a former University of Ottawa law professor, to investigate harassment allegations of staff by the museum’s top management, said it was “about time.”

Another previous employee, a former manager, agreed, saying he was far from shocked by allegations of harassment at the museum because the mistreatment of staff was well-known.

“At points in my life I have been surprised, nay shocked on occasion, but the situation you are alluding to would not qualify. I am sure that I am not a majority of one.”

This newspaper spoke to a handful of former museum employees by telephone, email and in person. None would agree to allow his or her name to be used in this story. Only one expressed surprise at the harassment allegations.

Indeed, some former employees are lining up to give Flaherty their stories of alleged mistreatment at the museum.

“I will contact the investigator working on this case, as will others who are no longer at the museum,” said one former employee.

Current employees contacted have declined to be interviewed, having been forbidden by management to speak to the news media. Questions to the museum are forwarded to a Toronto-based public relations company, MidtownPR, which issued the following statement.

“The Government of Canada and the Board of Trustees have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to workplace harassment,” the statement said. “The Canadian Museum of History has turned this matter over to an independent investigator, Michelle Flaherty. Due to privacy legislation, we will not have any further comment until we receive the full report.”

Former employees interviewed allege that current chief executive officer, Mark O’Neill, created “a toxic environment,” partially because of his “legendary” temper but also by adopting a management style rife with personal attacks and the pitting of one colleague against another.

According to sources, O’Neill is alleged to have shouted at colleagues and bullied them, placing angry phone calls late a night to employees’ homes for less than urgent business, looking for someone to blame rather than looking for a solution to a problem and turning minor affairs into crises.

“He thrives on crises,” said one former employee.

O’Neill is on leave until Nov. 2. Attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful. MidtownPR refused to answer specific questions about the allegations.

O’Neill has had the top job at the museum since 2011, when he succeeded Victor Rabinovitch. Prior to his appointment, O’Neill was director of the Canadian War Museum, which is part of the Canadian Museum of History; a successor has not yet been named at the war museum.

As head of the history museum, O’Neill’s biggest challenge came when former prime minister Stephen Harper ordered the institution, once known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization, to retool itself as the Canadian Museum of History.

That overhaul has largely been deemed a success. Harper liked O’Neill so much he reappointed him, a year early, to a second five-year term.

But tensions at the museum boiled over after the COVID-19 pandemic meant that most employees were forced to work from home, according to one former official. There were no longer face-to-face meetings between O’Neill and staff, nor impromptu corridor discussions. The tone used in an email, or even a phone call, was allegedly more brutal than it might be in a face-to-face meeting. As the situation deteriorated, the board learned of employee complaints and intervened.

The portrait painted of him by the former employees differs greatly from the way he was described by Rabinovitch, his former museum boss, in a 2011 interview.

“He really stands out as someone who does not duck tough issues,” Rabinovitch said. “He doesn’t disappear strategically, leaving other people to handle controversies or conflicts. He is very ready to look at a situation, seek advice from others, and then find practical solutions. He is not afraid of listening.”

Generally, Rabinovitch said, O’Neill is “an excellent problem solver.”

Heritage Minister Steve Guilbeault says he is closely watching events at the museum.

“Our government expects national museums to provide a healthy, abuse-free and safe workplace environment for all: the physical and mental well-being of staff members must be prioritized at all times,” Guilbeault’s office said a statement.

“The situation at the Canadian Museum of History is of great concern and we are in touch with its Board of Trustees, which has taken immediate action to respond to the complaints. Due to the ongoing investigation and Privacy Act considerations, we cannot comment further.”

Another national museum under Guilbeault’s care is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, which was engulfed in accusations of racism and homophobia this summer. A new director has since been installed.

O’Neill’s second five-year mandate is due to expire in June 2021.