Censure of Wanda Nanibush and Silencing of Decolonial Voices at the AGO

To the AGO Staff, Board of Directors, and Trustees:

For nearly two months, I have watched in horror at the mass killing and displacement of Palestinians, the complicity of the Canadian government and institutions, and the widespread censuring of critical voices of conscience across the country.

Today, I write to you in outrage at the sudden “departure” of Wanda Nanibush, the inaugural and only curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Artists and cultural workers who have voiced solidarity with Palestine have faced draconian attempts at silencing, and the AGO’s silent removal of Nanibush following pressure from Israeli apologists implicates the Gallery in this troubling pattern. I call on the AGO to remember its institutional commitment to "dismantl[e] institutional discrimination, racism and oppression” and to foster an “inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible” environment.

Nanibush’s departure follows a leaked letter, written by leadership at Israel Museums and Arts Canada (IMAAC), sent in mid-October to AGO Director and CEO Stephan Jost. IMAAC’s letter is rife with spurious claims—strategically omitting a 75-year campaign to erase Palestinian lives, histories, archaeologies, and ecologies from their original lands in service of a violent ethnonationalist apartheid state. It characterises Nanibush’s social media posts as “hateful,” and disputes Israel’s status as an illegal occupying state, despite a UN commission supporting this fact.

I am also deeply concerned by IMAAC’s insistence that the AGO adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which equates criticism of the State of Israel with antisemitism. Institutional endorsements of the IHRA definition have been rejected by international human rights groups and Jewish institutions and organisations, including Independent Jewish Voices, and Canada’s Jewish Faculty Network (CJFN). In CJFN’s words, IHRA’s framing “equates Jewishness and Judaism with the State of Israel,” and “threatens to silence legitimate criticism of Israel’s grave violations of international law.”

Last week, in a gesture of solidarity with Nanibush, artists brought speakers into the AGO to stage an artistic protest. A soundscape captured at street protests reverberated a chorus of chants throughout the gallery: “From Turtle Island to Palestine, genocide is a crime!" This expression of community outrage has been followed by a slew of open letters and petitions (1, 2, 3) expressing dismay with the AGO and the wider context of censorship and institutional racism exemplified by arts institutions. I echo the Indigenous Arts Community’s call to “commit to practised policies of decolonization and Indigenization.

Nanibush has been a vocal critic of settler-colonialism in Canada and around the world. Her targeting threatens all who are committed to decolonization, and especially Indigenous and Palestinian practitioners at this moment. Community outrage at Nanibush’s departure speaks to the importance of her work at the AGO and emphasises that the struggle against oppression is interconnected—from Turtle Island to Palestine, from the river to the sea, from settlements to prison cells.

As the Israeli occupation continues to displace, dispossess, and murder Palestinians, to continue to respond to the Palestinian struggle with denialism is a dead end. As artists around the world increasingly speak out against the injustice faced by Palestinians, institutions that continue to deny their humanity will isolate themselves, losing public legitimacy and goodwill on the global stage.  

I urge AGO leadership to take the following steps:

  • Issue a transparent statement regarding the departure of Wanda Nanibush

  • Publicly confirm that the AGO will not adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism

  • Reject the censorship of Palestinian voices and the Palestinian decolonial movement

  • Adopt PACBI (Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) guidelines

  • Recommit to the actions laid out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report

I will not be renewing my membership at the AGO, and will boycott the institution until these steps are taken.