As told to Dan Rubinstein
Photos by Rémi Thériault
Linda Grussani is an Indigenous art curator with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history from Carleton. After working at the Canadian Museum of History for three years, she went back to school in 2019 to continue her PhD in cultural studies at Queen’s University, looking at Indigenous representation in museums.
Her husband, Rawlson King, became Ottawa’s first Black city councillor by winning a byelection in Rideau-Rockcliffe in April 2019. King has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in communication from Carleton.
He got to know Grussani almost 25 years ago when they studied together for the final exam of a first-year film studies class, and they became closer over a summer of email correspondence in the early dialup era of the internet. In this new regular feature in Raven, we explore the intertwined professional and personal lives of a couple with strong connections to the university.
Like many people, you’re both working at home these days. What has that been like?
King: It’s good that we don’t have kids because we’re both really busy all the time. We live in a neighbourhood in my ward in a reasonably sized townhome with two primary bedrooms. This gives us both de facto offices. My busiest days go from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., talking to people in the community and to staff from my office and the city, and sometimes popping out for brief physically-distanced meetings. The frustrating thing for me, of course, is that as a politician you want to be out talking and listening to people directly. But these are abnormal times. I’m not going to City Hall in the morning and travelling around Ottawa for meetings, but instead am having meeting after meeting electronically.
Grussani: Rawlson’s easier for me to find right now. In the morning, I’ll ask, “What’s your schedule like?” and “Do you have time for lunch?” Because we have the privilege and luxury of having two separate workspaces, we’re not together throughout the day, so when we are together, we actually want to see each other. I’ve taken on a lot of the cooking since we’re not eating out much and am getting the chance to experiment. I have this flexibility because of my studies. I’m basically reading, writing and participating in online lectures and workshops for seven or eight hours a day.
King: Even if it lacks the intimacy of dialogue in the community, we’ve still been able to do amazing things, especially around support for vulnerable people. My office secured an emergency $40,000 investment from the city for the community resource centre in my ward that provides food bank services to vulnerable residents. I also successfully pushed for race-based and socio-economic data on COVID-19 and advocated for more testing in vulnerable neighbourhoods. And my office has supported innovative, grassroots-driven initiatives that include a project that purchases food from local businesses and gives it directly to the food bank. I get wrapped up in these kinds of things and try to ensure they get the support they need from the city.
Grussani: Last March, when lockdown began, I was sort of numb. Then I went into planning mode. I ordered a hydroponic garden and a seed sprouting system and revived a sourdough starter that had been languishing in the fridge. I began drawing on the teachings I had received from my parents. My mom is from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation; my father came to Canada from Italy in 1960. They have both passed on, but I found myself channelling the things they had taught me. My mother was an accomplished seamster and left me her sewing machine. Prior to COVID, I had not been able to bring myself to learn how to use it. COVID gave me the motivation to take it upstairs and I taught myself how to use it in one day and started sewing masks. I’m also channelling my father’s gardening prowess. Growing up we had a large garden and he put a lot of effort into growing the produce he missed from Italy that you couldn’t find in Ottawa 40 years ago. It seemed like my mind just went, “OK, we’re going to grow and make things now.”
It must be surreal to be doing all of these things — some of which are stressful and demanding — from home.
King: Ottawa is still in a state of emergency. The city had to transition the majority of its 17,000 employees to remote work and then continue on with the business of the city. I give credit to city staff because we didn’t see any disruption of essential services. The garbage was picked up, we had power, we had water services. We were continuing operations while dealing with the biggest public health emergency in a century. There are other challenges that we’re focused on, including social justice issues, transit and a range of health issues. I read a report every morning that tells me how many people are sick and how many people have died. I need to balance these concerns this position to help improve my community. So, yes, it is more work and it’s way more stressful, but that’s the nature of this role. And we are making progress, even though there’s a pandemic. In June, I became city council’s liaison for anti-racism and ethnocultural relations. There have been demonstrations around criminal justice and racial issues in our city and across North America and there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done.
Grussani: Even before the pandemic began, I had been seeking and building online communities so that I could work from home and not feel like I was missing everyday contact. I joined a writing group in January with women from all over the world. Even if it’s on Zoom, it’s important to have a space to talk about our experiences and share concerns. The women I write with are in South Africa, Europe, the U.K. and U.S., and despite our geographic differences, we’re all united with the same goal: completing our PhDs during these uncertain times. Within online Indigenous communities, there have also been a wealth of online workshops and conversations bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together. It was such a comfort at the beginning of the pandemic to participate in beading circles, cooking demonstrations and virtual pow wows and to feel connection, despite our shared isolation.
What do you think the next few months will hold for you?
Grussani: I’m working on two projects that I’m hoping will help Indigenous arts communities. One is with the Hnatyshyn Foundation to develop a national Indigenous art market event, which we’re planning to bring to Ottawa. It will be an opportunity for artists to promote their work and receive recognition and support. It’s early and we’re still looking for funding partners, but we’re envisaging a two-day event late next year or in early 2022. The other project is organizing an Indigenous Archives Summit for fall 2021 with the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival and other partners. I’m also working on my dissertation, learning more about bead sewing — and trying to keep that sourdough starter alive!
King: There is no shortage of things to keep me busy. The anti-racism initiatives we’re working on as a city are timely and necessary. We’re pushing for equity of opportunity and equity of outcomes for all people, especially when they’re dealing with services around employment, economic development, youth and health. I think we’re really at an inflection point of meaningful change. We’ve seen a sliver of change but we’re heading in the right direction. Dealing with so many important and interesting issues, I don’t have time to get cabin fever. There’s less delineation between work and personal time. That might not be the healthiest thing, but I don’t feel like I’m constrained within these walls, though I am looking forward to when we’ve moved beyond the need for social distancing and have a greater semblance of normalcy. One of my targets is the opening of that Indigenous art market in 2021. Hopefully we can hold a celebratory event in my ward that I could attend and maybe, just maybe, speak at. If we get to that point, I’ll be very pleased.
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