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Head of Canadian Museum of History looks to move past a tumultuous few years

Caroline Dromaguet first started working at the Canadian Museum of History as a summer guide, where as a student she fell in love with the world of museums.

Caroline Dromaguet first started working at the Canadian Museum of History as a summer guide, where as a student she fell in love with the world of museums.

Over the years she saw the exhibits change, with her life experience changing, too.

The museum is where she got her first “grown-up job,” and 25 years later, she has climbed to the top.

In December she was appointed president and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History Corp., a federal Crown corporation responsible for both the history museum in Gatineau, Que., and the Canadian War Museum on the Ottawa side of the river, after serving as interim CEO for two years.

“I just feel extremely lucky,” Dromaguet said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press, describing her appointment as “quite unexpected.”

Her predecessor, Mark O’Neill, resigned in 2021 following allegations of workplace harassment. He had been on medical leave since the summer of 2020, when an independent investigation was launched.

Dromaguet, the first French-speaking woman to hold the position, is now tasked with reforming the museum’s policies following years of turmoil, and upholding the commitment to further advance truth and reconciliation.

A public report released two years ago showed the corporation’s structure “primarily focused on control” where employees “did not feel a sense of community at the organizational level.”

The workplace assessment report, commissioned by the corporation, said the culture didn’t enable innovation. Employees described poor behaviour including bullying, blame, suspicion, maliciousness and fear-driven leadership.

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived during this tumultuous period, and Dromaguet said remote work further weakened communication and in-person connection among employees.

“We needed to establish a sense of trust among ourselves and our organization,” she said.

Citing privacy laws, Dromaguet declined to provide details of the harassment allegations, how many people were ultimately disciplined, or any possible severance payouts.

“Like everyone I have read (about) it on our public platforms. I personally can’t speak to that period. I was here at that time, but the findings are there and are publicly available,” she said, also declining to answer whether she witnessed or experienced harassment herself.

She was willing to speak to the corporation’s approach to addressing bad behaviour since then.

“That’s something we were all responsible for,” said Dromaguet, adding that the corporation has defined its workplace values, one of six recommendations from the April 2021 workforce assessment report.

“Acting with integrity is one of those values, and I firmly believe in that and nobody should get a free pass when it comes to (bad behaviour).”

All six recommendations are being implemented, Dromaguet said. They include stabilizing the leadership team; offering leadership development, coaching and training; establishing a sense of trust; defining desired culture; and addressing barriers to diversity and inclusion.

Human resources also renewed its harassment and violence in the workplace policy.

The organization is working to repatriate objects to First Nations and other Indigenous Peoples, and will soon release its results of a three-year plan that focused on Indigenous relations, adopting new policies and building relationships with First Nations.

“I want to think that the needle is moving, but I don’t want to take everything for granted. I think we are moving in the right direction, but it’s an ongoing work,” Dromaguet said.

She said contributing to a cultural transformation has taken a lot of collaboration and listening on her part. She also credits a new “employee experience journey” program for driving further change.

“It’s a lot of work. Change is hard. But I’m really inspired to see that engagement from staff and it’s looking bright.”

While the workplace assessment report notes improvements, Dromaguet said she has learned that workplace culture is as important as the culture displayed within the museum walls.

Standing in the Canadian Museum of History’s Haida Gwaii Salon, she pointed to her favourite installment: Alex Janvier’s Morning Star, seven floors up.

Completed in just three months in 1993 with the help of his son Dean, the painting illustrates the Denesuline artist’s perspective on the history of the land we inhabit and expresses hope for mutual respect.

“It really tells the beautiful story of humans cohabitating and living together,” Dromaguet said.

“I find it inspirational in terms of our work, and our journey towards reconciliation. It’s just a nice inspiration and reminder for me.”