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'We need to send a message': ABC councillors deny VANDU $7,500 funding for art program


The majority on Vancouver city council have voted not to approve $7,500 in funding for an art program on the Downtown Eastside, citing – in part – the need to "send a message" to the organization facilitating the drop-in.

At Tuesday's meeting, council was presented with a staff report recommending a combined $4,351,340 in arts and culture grants, to be distributed to 209 organizations.

Coun. Brian Montague, who is with the majority ABC party, asked staff about a particular line item in the report that proposed funding the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users' art table. His concern, he said, was that the organization failed to deliver what it promised when it was given a sizeable grant to clean up East Hasting Street last year.

"Was the fact that the city terminated that funding to this group last year factored into the decision to grant them more money?" Montague staff.

In response, cultural manager Cherryl Masters said the particular program was funded last year and met all of the criteria.

"The criteria is really about impact in the community," she said.

"This project was well received by the community peer assessors in terms of offering some low income residents of the Downtown Eastside some opportunities to have a voice, be creative, to be off the streets and maybe access some other resources that VANDU provides," she continued.

The termination of the $320,000 street cleaning grant, Masters said, was not relevant to assessing VANDU's ongoing eligibility to receive funding for the art program.

"That was a very new activity for them. We knew we were trying something new and it didn't work out. In this situation, this is a program that they have run before and and it was successful. We do have confidence in this particular program," she said.


When it came time to vote on the staff report and its recommendations, Montague introduced an amendment to approve everything but the $7,500 for VANDU.

"I have concerns about the guidelines that were used to recommend the grant based on past performance," Montague said.

"I personally don't have confidence that they would deliver the program and service and I disagree with the funding for the organization."

Green Party Coun. Pete Fry was the first of the three non-ABC members to speak out against the amendment, saying the grant itself is modest and that it promotes art as a mode of healing and self-expression.

"I think it would be a mistake to deny this $7,500 for folks to express themselves in the midst of this disastrous overdose crisis," he said.

"We're talking about a drug crisis, which since it was declared a public health emergency in 2016 has claimed more than 10,000 lives in British Columbia. So when we talk about art as a vehicle of expression, we're talking about people in a population who have really suffered some pretty catastrophic losses in that community."

ABC councillors were unanimous in their support of the amendment, all citing the street cleaning grant as evidence that the organization should not be entrusted with more public money.

"I know this is only $7,500 we're talking about and I am a big supporter of the arts and culture sector. But we have to draw the line somewhere, and I believe – as a council – we need to send a message," Coun. Peter Meiszner said.

Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung said that what was at stake was more than a single grant.

"I think it is incumbent upon us as stewards of public funds that the principle of responsible use of public money is upheld," she said.

Brittany Graham, the executive director of VANDU disagrees with the claim that the funds were misused.

"We did not misappropriate funds, we did not have a cleaning contract with the city, we had an empowerment contract. We had eight deliverables, one of which mentions cleaning, the rest of deliverables are about creating infrastructure, creating meetings, spaces, places where people can start to be part of the community,” Graham told CTV News.


OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle, like Fry, spoke against the amendment, saying the funding was modest and concurring with Fry that the organization was being singled out. She also questioned the motivation for the move.

"This is a small grant for a project that they have delivered successfully in the past and that has had a meaningful impact in the past. I support this grant. I don't support the amendment to remove it and I will also say I am concerned about the politicization of eliminating small grants for very vulnerable residents like this on the floor of council," she said.

"We are nickel and diming a small, frontline organization that really is serving those most at risk and a community that has been witnessing their friends and neighbors die in unbelievable numbers in recent years," she later added.

VANDU, as Fry noted during the meeting, does engage in political activity by organizing protests and rallies and pushing for changes to drug policy. More recently, at the municipal level, the group's activism has included campaigning against the election of Mayor Ken Sim and members of his party – as well as speaking out against particular policies and promises such as increasing funding for the Vancouver Police Department.

Montague is a former officer and spokesperson for the department.

"VANDU have done some political things that have possibly created a scenario where we're, we're looking at VANDU through a different lens," Fry said.

"This is a decision that is being put forward and supported by the majority of one political party at this council. You can interpret that as you will," he later said.


Sim, voting in support of the amendment, said he was doing so to send a message about accountability and responsibility, not to single out one organization.

"The expectation at the City of Vancouver is when you do business with the City of Vancouver, we are going to hold you up to a higher level of accountability. And so that's why I will support this motion. It has nothing to do with VANDU per se," he said.

"It's a privilege not a right to be able to do business with the City of Vancouver. And that's the type of culture that we want to lead here while I'm in office."

When asked what he meant by that comment, Sim told CTV it means holding organizations accountable.

“We’re not just allocating funds without thinking and doing our due diligence. We hold ourselves to a high standard and we’re going to hold the organizations we work with and partnerships to a high standard as well. It’s a new day at city hall.”

Graham says the decision not to fund the VANDU's art program only impacts residents, not the organization.

The program runs twice a week with 10 spots available, she says the table is always full with residents using art as a means of expression.

"I think it's been a really great opportunity for people to take their sadness, pain, anger, resentment, celebrations et cetera and kind of channel it."

Shortly after council made its decision, a GoFundMe was started to raise $7,500 for the program. As of Wednesday evening, more than $8,000 had been raised. 

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Abigail Turner Top Stories

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