An Unwanted Voice

Why I was forced off the Banff Centre board

By Donna Kennedy-Glans

In August 2019 the government of Alberta invited me to join the 16-person board of governors at the Banff Centre for an initial three-year term. I had applied through normal channels, was vetted, and was grateful for the appointment to this volunteer role at a place I knew well and cared about. I understand governance (including the implications of conflicts of interest), having practised, taught and written about governance for several decades now. Adam Waterous was appointed as chair of the board in that same timeframe, and the CEO, Janice Price, had been at the organization’s helm since 2015 (following Jeff Melanson’s sudden departure in the face of sexual harassment claims and his “inability to deliver on grandiose plans”). Waterous was known to me as a private sector owner of an oil sands project, a founding board member of Invest Alberta Corporation, and the owner of several commercial interests in Banff, including the Mount Norquay ski resort and the lease for the community’s train station. Waterous and his wife, Jan, are behind the proposal to bring high-speed passenger rail service from the Calgary airport to Banff, a project championed by Invest Alberta and presently being evaluated for a billion-dollar investment by the Canada Infrastructure Bank.

Most public sector boards are a mix of government and institutional appointments. People were curious about my allegiances. In short order, I made sure everyone at that board table understood I took to heart the commitment to serve the interests of The Banff Centre and the communities it serves; I’ve never been timid to let people know I’m not a government bot. In the summer of 2020, fellow board members appointed me vice-chair of the board and chair of the governance and recruitment committee. I was told by several board members that my candour and willingness to speak up were factors that influenced their support for me in that role.

COVID-19, a stalled Alberta econ-omy and growing advocacy for BIPOC representation at cultural and artistic institutions across Canada combined to make 2020 and 2021 very unsettled times for Banff Centre leadership. A McKinsey-led review of the post-secondary sector initiated by Demetrios Nicolaides, Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education, added to the upheaval. Income generated from the conference business of the centre dried up, but public- and private-sector funders continued to write big cheques even though the campus was shuttered and hundreds of employees were let go. The centre eventually launched digital programming but was not well positioned to adapt to a virtual world. The board of governors focused on a strategic plan, which exposed some of the differences of opinion on commercialization trajectories for the centre. The plan ultimately was released early in 2021 without direct input from the artists and others served by
the centre.

It was a CBC Eyeopener interview at 7:00 a.m. on Friday, May 14, 2021, that triggered my demise. You may recall that was the month when the normally reserved MLA from the Peace Country, Todd Loewen, had declared his utter frustration with the leadership of Premier Jason Kenney. I was invited to that CBC talk show to fill in some of the colour on what it’s like inside the caucus in situations like this. For the last four years, I’ve been a regular on CTV and CBC, offering up political commentary from an Alberta perspective. When asked my opinion on what advice I’d offer to the premier in this situation, I suggested that “he should listen to his critical friends.” Pretty tame stuff.

That day unfolded—I spent four hours on Zoom participating in an Institute of Corporate Directors training course, drove downtown to get a routine breast exam and, en route home, received a telephone call from an angry Adam Waterous, berating me like a bad teenager for having spoken up on the Eyeopener. Couldn’t I just keep my mouth shut? Of course, I had said nothing critical about The Banff Centre (and never had in public); from Waterous’s perspective, I wasn’t allowed to say anything about politics in Alberta despite the fact I’d been doing so long before I was appointed to this role and during my entire tenure on the board. It felt to me as if this interview gave the chair and the CEO the opportunity they were hoping for, the chance to oust someone who questioned their approaches. And
they pounced.

The next day, a Saturday, I received another call from Waterous, telling me the Executive Committee (of which I was a member, as chair of the governance committee) had met and were calling for my resignation from the board. The Banff Centre’s lawyer even offered to write my letter of resignation! I laughed out loud at the audacity of it all, assured Waterous I was well aware of the rules and bylaws, and told him I wasn’t resigning, because neither he nor the executive committee had the authority or grounds to remove me. How could anyone rationalize an arts and culture and education institution endorsing this kind of censorship and constraint on freedom of expression? Imagine telling an artist they needed to keep quiet on anything that may not be well received by a politician. It was
all surreal.

On the Sunday, I heard from one of the board members on the executive committee, a fellow lawyer; he was disgusted by it all and said it felt like a lynch mob. (The next month, this same director quit the board, before the end of his tenure.) Later that day, I received an email from Waterous pointing to a section of the Code of Ethics of the centre that prohibited negative attacks on political actors or government policies “germane to the role and business of the centre.” Given that the centre receives funding from federal and provincial governments, such a restrictive interpretation of the code would place most of us offside, including the chair.

Realizing that he couldn’t unilaterally fire me, he invited me to an executive committee meeting on Tuesday, May 18, to “explain” myself. I was given five minutes. It was a brutal and demeaning inquisition, I was talked down to and treated like someone who was very bad: “Don’t you think the rules apply to you; what were you thinking?” In my answers to their questions, I made it clear that as a 61-year-old woman who cared deeply about The Banff Centre and the importance of creating the conditions for artists, Indigenous leaders and others to have a safe place at the foot of Buffalo Mountain to test new ideas and create, I would not resign from the board and would remain committed to working, with them, to move that vision forward. But, I reminded them, if I were a 35-year-old, this whole intimidation strategy would have crushed me. And, I added, this is part of the problem at the centre: we talk and talk about diversity, yet smother people who have different ideas than our own.

The next few months were relatively calmer, or so it seemed. The rest of the board had an inkling there was a disturbance but weren’t provided the facts. The chair unilaterally eliminated a special committee I chaired and a few people were understandably upset by that. There was ongoing grumbling about the executive committee making decisions that should have gone to the full board. As chair of governance and recruitment, I continued to work to identify diversity candidates to fill vacated board positions. At the May board meeting, I shared a routine board governance review questionnaire with fellow board members, instructing them to send their confidential feedback directly to the centre’s lawyer, who would share the data with me and then the full board on a non-attributable basis. In late June, when this feedback on board governance was due, I received an email from the board chair advising that this process wasn’t appropriate and a board governance review needed to be handled by an expert. When I asked the corporate lawyer (who reports to the CEO), he affirmed that he had read the comments of individual board members before the CEO and chair decided to upend an established internal governance process.

The July board meeting was cordial, heavy on financial reporting, but more and more questions were being asked about the administration of the place, including the hollowing out of the senior leadership team. In the last year, three of six direct reports to the CEO had left: Rosemary Thompson, VP of marketing and development, Howard Jang, VP of arts and leadership, and Bruce Byford, CFO. Increasingly I was hearing unsolicited concerns—directly from people working at The Banff Centre, from prior employees and from friends of the place—about the waves of departures from the Indigenous leadership programs, the ongoing frustration of artists who felt abandoned by the centre during COVID-19, and the implications of an authoritarian, top-down leadership style that was out of sync with the inherent values of the place.

On August 5 I opened up my laptop early in the morning to work on a manuscript. I was gobsmacked to read an email from Adam Waterous asking for my resignation from the board of governors. No discussion, no explanation, just a terse note telling me if I didn’t resign voluntarily by noon the next day, he would ask the Government of Alberta to fire me:

Donna,

I am writing to you on behalf of the leadership of Banff Centre to request your resignation from Banff Centre’s Board of Governors due to your continued failure to adhere to Banff Centre’s Code of Ethics and your inappropriate conduct in your interactions with Banff Centre’s senior management.

Such resignation should be made in writing, submitted to myself, by noon on Friday, August 6th. We will communicate that you have chosen to resign to pursue other priorities. Should you choose not to resign by Friday at noon, the leadership of Banff Centre will request that the Government of Alberta rescind your appointment as a Governor of Banff Centre effective immediately.

Adam

Chair of the Board of Governors of  The Banff Centre

 

This was utterly shocking. And obviously well-orchestrated with the government and Banff Centre leadership. I responded by email, that day, to the entire board (most of whom were unaware this demand had been issued), calling out the claims as unfounded and the demands as audacious. Serious issues needed to be navigated at the centre and that was our job. We weren’t getting great press on how we were managing during the pandemic and artists were lobbying for change. I concluded my email with the following:

Rather than perpetuating this pointless game, let me cut to the chase: If The Banff Centre is no longer an arts organization, and is instead a commercial venture, then yes, I will be delighted to resign. However, if The Banff Centre is still an arts organization, we need to talk.

Donna Kennedy-Glans, QC

Vice-Chair of the Board of Governors of The Banff Centre

Board members who reached out to the chair to ask what the heck was going on were told not to contact me, and that a follow-up email was coming. And sure enough, that’s what happened. Five days later, on August 10, I received the following email from the Minister of Advanced Education:

 

Dear Donna:

At the request of the leadership of The Banff Centre, and as per Order in Council 247/2021, your appointment to the Board of Governors of The Banff Centre has been rescinded effective August 10, 2021.

On behalf of Premier Jason Kenney and Alberta’s government, thank you for serving on the Board of Governors of The Banff Centre. A commemorative certificate in recognition of your valued service will follow. Your contribution to post-secondary education in Alberta is greatly appreciated. Thank you for the time you have so willingly given to serve Albertans. You have truly made a difference in the lives of many people by helping them to achieve their dreams. 

Best,

Demetrios Nicolaides

Minister of Advanced Education

cc: Adam Waterous,

Chair, Board of Governors,

The Banff Centre

 

For the record, the government did send me a commemorative certificate. Ironically (considering I led the discussion on inclusion and diversity on the board as chair of the governance and recruitment committee), Mike Mendelman, a prominent Banff businessman partial to the hospitality industry, a white guy, and an acknowledged friend of the chair, was parachuted into my place. He was named to the board of governors in an Order in Council issued that same day. Orders in Council don’t happen overnight; this plan was clearly designed weeks, if not months, earlier. This is how board governance is done in UCP Alberta.

I am not alone. Following news of my Banff Centre departure, others in similar circumstances rang me up, including members of other boards where people had been replaced. I also heard from people presently and previously affiliated with The Banff Centre, dozens of people who care about the place; they warned about the push toward commercialization and the neglect of core arts programming. And for some it was déjà vu: the UCP’s quiet endorsement of a grand plan tabled by the board chair—a “vision” reminiscent of the Klein era, when the keys to several public institutions were tossed to friends. Many describe a top-down, authoritarian organizational culture at odds with the centre’s aim of providing a safe space for collaboration; several characterize the workplace as “toxic.” Artists, Indigenous people and other “cultural creatives” repeatedly spoke of being “muted.”

How could anyone rationalize an arts and culture and education institution endorsing censorship and constraint on freedom of expression?

In fact, muting and censorship is a thread running through my story.

Buddhist friends tell me that in your life an issue recurs with greater and greater intensity until you learn what you are supposed to learn. Some may suggest that my lesson to be learned is don’t speak truth to power; choose instead to be silent in the face of bullying and intimidation. But honestly, I don’t think that’s my lesson. When I left the Progressive Conservative caucus and cabinet and sat as an independent in the Alberta legislature in March 2014, I couldn’t share my reasons publicly, because I was bound to confidentiality as a member of Treasury Board. Years later, few care about my reasons. Few understand the pain of the shunning, and the human consequences when people make assumptions and tell false versions of your story.

This time, I am telling my story. And ultimately, this is not about me as much as it is about all of us who call Alberta home.

 

Donna Kennedy-Glans was an MLA (PC; Calgary-Varsity, 2012–2015) and associate minister of electricity and renewable energy in the Redford government.

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