On January 17, 2024, Members of Canada's Indigenous arts community published an online Open Letter addressed to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Titled "Let Wanda Speak" the letter, which also serves as an online petition, requests that the Art Gallery of Ontario release Indigenous curator Wanda Nanibush from "any legal obligations preventing her from speaking publicly about her tenure and dismissal". The letter makes clear that the AGO has caused a "seismic rupture within the fragile fabric of reconciliation".
A response deadline of January 31, 2024 has been set in the Open Letter. The letter was signed by members of the Indigenous Curatorial Collective, Primary Colours, the National Indigenous Media Arts Coalition, Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art, and the Ociciwan Contemporary Art Centre.
Rungh News wrote to Eli Hirtle, Director of Programs at the Indigenous Curatorial Collective seeking an interview and received no response by the set deadline.
Rungh News also wrote to the AGO seeking a response. By an email dated January 18, Laura Quinn from the AGO replied to Rungh News confirming that the AGO had received the letter from the Indigenous Curatorial Collective and that the AGO would respond to them directly by the January 31 deadline.
Nanibush "left" the AGO on November 16, 2023 according to an internal email written to AGO staff by Stephan Jost, Director and CEO of the AGO. On November 18, 2023, more than 40 Governor General Award-winning artists published a letter stating that the AGO was engaging in "political censorship with shades of McCarthyism". On November 30, the AGO issued its own Open Letter in the form of a press release. The AGO letter does not reference Nanibush but engages in platitudes about "open, honest and brave conversations".
The "leaving" of Nanibush appears to have been triggered, at least in part, by a complaint letter sent to Jost, dated October 16, 2023 from the Israel Museums and Arts, Canada (IMAAC). The IMAAC letter accuses Nanibush of holding "hateful opinions", and "peddling these lies since 2016" in a Canadian Art magazine article. The objectionable opinions, according to the IMAAC letter, are "her dedication to repeating that Israel is involved with genocide and colonialism" and Nanibush's denial "that Jews are indigenous to Israel".
IMAAC notes on its website that it is "rebranding" from its former name "Canadian Friends of the Israel Museum". This same term, "rebranding", is used in a Globe and Mail article dated August 26, 2023. IMAAC is committed to support for "the Israel Museum and its youth-related programs" according to its website. The Israel Museum is located in Jerusalem. A search of the Revenue Canada charities data base reveals that the charitable status of the former Canadian Friends of the Israel Museum was "Revoked-Audited" for "gifting resources to a non-qualified donee" and "failed to be constituted for exclusively charitable purposes", amongst other non-compliances.
Nanibush's 2016 article in Canadian Art magazine is entitled, "About Land" and subtitled "Colonization, whether in Canada or Palestine, marks a before and an after where identity is radically altered by loss". In the article, Nanibush reflects on her May 2016 visit to Bethlehem with artists Jamelie Hassan and Ron Benner to attend a conference. Nanibush at various times refers to Palestine and Israel but the focus is land – "[b]eing Indigenous in Palestine is about land". Nanibush links being Indigenous, whether in Palestine or Canada, with being in relation to the land. She draws comparisons between Canada's 1885 "pass system" laws which restricted Indigenous mobility on the land and Israel's permitting system, as it is applied to Palestinians in the present.
Rungh News asked artist Jamelie Hassan to comment on the "Let Wanda Speak" letter. In her reply, Hassan wrote:
"I can only repeat what the late Tom Hill, acclaimed Seneca advocate, artist, and former director of Woodland Cultural Centre, at Six Nations, a passionate representative of the integrity and intellectual vibrancy among Indigenous cultural workers, said --the "politics is awesome". This word "awesome" aptly applies to Wanda Nanibush, who is following in Tom's footsteps. Taking a position of integrity and having challenged the Canadian cultural elite with her politics and solidarity with Palestinians, rightly aligning Indigenous sovereignty with Palestinians' rights, is what most infuriates Apartheid-Israel supporters."
Referencing non-disclosure agreements, Hassan concludes that, "No artist should be forced to muzzle their political beliefs, nor be restricted from discussing attempts to silence them through such odious legal mechanisms". Indigenous arts groups have put the AGO on notice and have warned that they are "considering other options that are arising from ongoing conversations within Indigenous arts communities."