Vancouver theatre critic Colin Thomas sues Georgia Straight for firing
A fixture in the city's art scene, and 'esteemed across the country,' Thomas seeks $35,000 in compensation.
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A Vancouver theatre critic is suing the Georgia Straight newspaper for wrongful dismissal, alleging he was told one of the reasons he was let go was because his reviews were too critical of young artists.
Colin Thomas wrote theatre and arts reviews exclusively for the Straight for 30 years, but the paper let him go in September 2016. In court documents, the Straight argued it ended its work relationship with Thomas because it was “restructuring” the paper.
Reached by phone, Thomas told Metro about some of the things said to him when he was let go.
"When I was in the meeting with Janet Smith (arts editor) and Charlie Smith (editor)...I said is there a problem...one of the things that they said was 'Oh you know there have been some complaints...there's been some feeling that you're hard on young artists,'" he said.
After Thomas wrote about the experience in his blog post Thomas said people in the arts community wrote to him and said his detailed critiques had helped them to refine their acting skills.
It was “great to hear from a bunch of young artists, saying 'You know he's a hard-ass but he's made me a better actor, a better artist,’” he said. “I was very, very moved by that and that's not something I expected.”
According to court documents, in the month following Thomas’s announcement, over 400 people signed an online petition to support him. Now, more than two years later, Thomas told Metro the blog post in which he explained his dismissal had over 14,000 page views.
Losing his position as the Straight’s theatre critic was nonetheless tumultuous, Thomas said.
“It was pretty devastating, being a theatre critic is my life's work," he said. "It's what gives my life meaning, and suddenly the platform of the Georgia Straight…was taken away."
Now, with a trial date set for early April, Thomas said he feels nervous about the hearing, but relieved to have a date scheduled.
Metro contacted the Straight for comment but did not hear back. In court documents, the Straight argues that it’s impossible for Thomas to claim he was wrongfully fired, because he was always an independent contractor, and therefore did not have a permanent working position like an employee would.
Among other arguments, The Straight wrote that Thomas was welcome to and ultimately did writing and editing (that wasn’t theatre criticism) for other companies. It also says that it offered Thomas “alternative work,” but that he didn’t respond to their offer.
However, Thomas' lawyer Susanna Quail said she and Thomas are asking the Georgia Straight for $35,000 in damages for wrongful dismissal through small claims court. In part, it’s because Thomas is in his mid-60s, an age at which it’s difficult to find new work, and because similar work is hard to find.
“Theatre criticism is an incomparably small niche,” Quail wrote in court documents.
Quail told Metro that about five witnesses will testify on Thomas’ behalf, and will speak about his importance as a theatre critic and his work relationship with the Straight.
“Colin has an extremely strong reputation,” she said. “He's very esteemed across the country, and there was a lot of outcry when they terminated him from the Straight because he was seen as playing such a valuable role in shaping Vancouver's theatre community.”
In court documents submitted before the hearing, Quail argues that Thomas was not an independent contractor to the Straight. Rather, he should be seen as a “dependent contractor,” making the relationship between Thomas and the Straight similar to that of an employee and an employer.
Quail argues that Thomas should be considered a dependent contractor because of how long the Straight worked with him, because the paper relied almost solely on his theatre reviews, and because it prevented Thomas from writing reviews for anyone else.
Correction - Feb. 22: A previous version of this article alleged Thomas was told he was fired for being too critical of young artists. The story has been clarified to state he alleged this was one of the reasons he was told he was let go. Metro has added a quote from Thomas explaining this in his own words.