Local arts groups and opposition politicians are accusing the B.C. Liberals of maintaining a culture of silence regarding the status of gaming grants.
At an August 17 news conference held at the downtown NDP Caucus Office, host NDP culture critic Spencer Herbert was joined by NDP social development critic Shane Simpson; Vancouver International Children's Festival acting co-executive director Elvira Wiebe; Vancouver administrative director and Elektra Women's Choir artistic director Morna Edmundson; and Le Centre Culturel Francophone de Vancouver executive director Pierre Rivard.
All three arts representatives noted that they were being affected by the current freeze and review of gaming grants, despite receiving three-year funding commitments from 2008-09 to 2010-2011. Wiebe said the Children's Festival had a commitment for $95,000 per year; Edmundon said MusicFest's commitment was for $40,000 and Elektra's was for $18,000 per year; and Rivard said Le Centre had a commitment of $40,000 per year. Of the groups represented at the news conference, only MusicFest Vancouver had received the second installment of its three-year funding.
"It seems to be just a question of timing that we were [scheduled to receive funds] in May, just before the funds were frozen," said Edmundson. "In the case of my choir, we are in the freeze. Right now we're just speculating, we don't know what's happening. We can't get information from the government."
Wiebe said the Children's Festival normally receives its money by direct deposit early in the summer. "In July, we started to question why we had not received it," she said. "We spoke to someone at gaming and they couldn't tell us very much”¦.We have now produced our event, we've got expenses and bills to be paid, and it will be very difficult for us to make up that portion of our budget at this late date when the event had already taken place."
Rivard noted that he, too, had already held his major event—Festival d'été—in June, on the understanding that the multi-year funding commitment would be upheld by the provincial government. "This is basically a $40,000 deficit for us if it [cancellation of gaming funds] is to happen. We hope it's not going to happen, because it's a little bit like throwing us into Hurricane Katrina without warning. It would be devastating, and we would definitely have to cancel programs."
On August 14, according to Rivard, Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid told him that arts groups should expect to be disappointed when the grant money is finally released. MacDiarmid refused a request for an interview with the Straight, but provided a statement that did note, in part, "With these things, there are more people applying than there are funds available, so some people will be disappointed."
The Straight asked to speak with Rich Coleman, minister for housing and social development—the ministry that oversees the gaming grants—and was told that he, too, was unavailable. A ministry representative did acknowledge, however, that the ministry's review of discretionary grants does include multi-year grants. A request for information about the number of multi-year grants being affected by the freeze has not yet been answered.
Rivard has threatened to investigate legal action should the government fail to deliver on its multi-year funding commitments.
Herbert accused the provincial government of deliberately misleading arts groups about the status of their grants. "The government quietly froze the money," he said. "They didn't tell anybody about it, there were not letters, there were no announcements”¦.The cheque's not there, and the government won't tell them where the money is."
Added Simpson: "We now have a government that appears in the middle of its panic around the budget to be prepared to breach those commitments, to break that social contract, and to in fact walk way."
According to the Ministry of Housing and Social Development's website, total government revenues from gaming in 2008-2009 were $2.61 billion, compared to $1.9 billion in 2007-2008. After expenses and payouts, net revenues for 2008-2009 were $1.09 billion.
Simpson said the government's freeze of gaming funds called into question the entire gaming system.
"When the lottery system and the gaming system started to grow in British Columbia, there always was an understanding that there is a downside to gaming in terms of the impacts on people," he said. "There was always a commitment that the upside to this would be that those funds would go to general revenues, to health care, to community organizations, and to local governments. If you start to break that down and you're no longer providing those dollars to the organizations you committed to when this structure around gaming was originally put in place, then I think it does open a discussion about what the value of gaming is."
Simpson added that the funding freeze may be the tip of the iceberg: "Eighty-three million dollars of gaming money goes to local governments. Are they next? We don't know. We're very concerned, generally, about how this is all unfolding”¦.It's not acceptable the way the arts and culture community has been treated by this government, and our concern is they are the first in a long line of sectors that will be treated in a similar way by the B.C. Liberals."