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National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario Jan. 17, 2023.Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

The manager who handled high-profile layoffs at the National Gallery of Canada is an outside consultant juggling two leadership roles for annual fees potentially worth more than the salary of the institution’s top executive.

Tania Lafrenière, the gallery’s human resources director and interim chief operating officer, is paid as much as $306,150 a year in fees, significantly more than the salary of the last chief executive, Sasha Suda. In her HR role, Ms. Lafrenière led the meeting in which Indigenous curator Greg Hill lost his job last November and presided over three other layoffs. In an unusual combination of jobs, she also serves as the gallery’s No. 2 executive under interim director Angela Cassie. And according to her LinkedIn profile and website, she maintains her own consultancy.

Documents obtained through access to information show Ms. Lafrenière is paid a daily fee of $1,177.50 and can bill the gallery for as many as 260 days a year. That puts her possible annual compensation as much as a third higher than the amount the gallery is offering a new chief executive and director, a job posted last fall with a salary range of $204,200 to $240,200. Ms. Suda, who left the gallery last summer, was hired in 2019 in a range up to $210,800.

Former public-service managers and governance experts interviewed by The Globe questioned the wisdom of the gallery’s arrangement with Ms. Lafrenière, saying that the use of a consultant to fill key roles concentrates power in an individual not accountable to the organization, and that the COO and HR jobs shouldn’t be combined.

The gallery has been embroiled in controversy since November when it laid off Mr. Hill, chief curator Kitty Scott, head of conservation Stephen Gritt and communications director Denise Siele. Ms. Cassie tied the departures to the new strategic plan, which led some critics to believe they were motivated by power struggles over the changes at the gallery.

Before her departure, Ms. Suda launched an ambitious modernization of the institution with a strategic plan committed to Indigenous knowledge and community connections, but she also presided over a stream of staff departures. To further the plan, she had brought in Ms. Cassie as vice-president of strategic transformation and inclusion, and Ms. Lafrenière as vice-president of people, culture and belonging; the two women are now running the gallery as interim CEO and COO, respectively.

“I’m not aware of an organization where you would put that much authority in a consultant,” said Richard Powers, who teaches governance at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “If she is operating as an employee, she shouldn’t be paid as a consultant.” He said $1,100 a day is a modest fee for a consultant, but that consultants should be hired in the short term to work on specific projects rather than run day-to-day operations.

The gallery’s director of communications Douglas Chow defended Ms. Lafrenière’s contract, saying she was hired as “a third-party consultant” to bring labour peace to the gallery, where the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) had been without a contract since 2019.

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He credited her with getting a contract signed, instituting a conflict-resolution process to cut union grievances and overseeing 118 new hires. “It should be noted that Ms. Lafrenière is assuming the interim for two senior management positions at the VP level. Her consultant fees are in line with market rates for services of this calibre and do not include workplace benefits,” he said.

Ms. Lafrenière did not respond to a request for comment. She has a master’s in business administration from Queen’s University and a long career as a human-resources manager working previously with the CBC, PSAC and the Canadian Red Cross. She was the COO at Groupe Nordik, a spa company in Gatineau, Que., before establishing her consultancy in 2019.

The gallery’s decision to combine the COO and human-resources functions is particularly troubling, said Victor Rabinovitch, fellow at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University and a former chief executive of what is now the Canadian Museum of History. He said the HR director should report to the chief executive, and maintain a degree of independence from operations to better advocate for people rather than finances.

“The director of HR is someone who is highly trusted, so that employees can go to that person with a complaint,” he said. “To mix the two, it’s flabbergasting. …The bad corporate culture is one where the HR director is just an arm of the COO.”

Gallery documents show that the director of human resources, responsible for labour relations, recruitment and performance management, could expect to be paid $105,000 to $149,000. The COO, responsible for all business operations, strategic planning and statutory and legal obligations, would be paid a salary ranging from $149,000 to $212,000.

Mr. Chow said the gallery is looking for a full-time human-resources director, but will leave it to a new chief executive to approve the scope of the COO role before a permanent hire is made for that post. He would not comment on the specifics of the four layoffs, but said it would be the usual practice to have Ms. Lafrenière present for such meetings.

Mr. Hill, the only staffer to discuss their situation publicly, said he was told he would lose his job in a meeting in which Ms. Lafrenière participated by video link. Steven Loft, the gallery’s vice-president of Indigenous ways and decolonization, spoke to Mr. Hill but then left the room, leaving him with Ms. Lafrenière, who outlined his severance options. He assumed she was a gallery manager and employee.

When it was announced in January, 2021, that Ms. Lafrenière was joining the gallery, both the news release and internal communications seen by The Globe gave no indication she was offering her services as a consultant.

“Ms. Lafrenière will be leading the Human Resources Team through transformative change,” Ms. Suda wrote in an internal e-mail, thanking her for “joining the National Gallery of Canada’s team.”

However, contracts between the gallery and Lafrenière Consulting show that she had not joined staff but rather extended an existing agreement.

She had originally signed a contract in October, 2020, to provide 88 days of work for $96,800, but soon after her appointment was announced it was extended to 305 days for $335,500, or $1,100 a working day.

Then, a year later on Feb. 3, 2022, just after that amendment expired, the gallery extended the contract for another few months, raising the sum to $401,400 for 365 working days. That compensation would have covered work performed over a period of 18 months and which now included the COO role to which she was appointed after the retirement of David Loye in August, 2021. (The documents do not state how many days Ms. Lafrenière actually billed.)

Although the first amendment to her contract stated negotiations would take place with a view to making her a salaried employee, a new contract was signed last March for two more years and no longer includes that clause.

The amounts in that second contract are calculated on a day rate that has risen by 7 per cent to $1,177.50. The contract states that her fees will not exceed $612,300 for the two years of work.