City Celebrates Fests With Cash

In a recent series of articles on Vancouver's multicultural mix, a local daily declared Vancouver "post-ethnic", claiming that it had exceeded Toronto and Montreal in its tolerance and acceptance of diverse cultures. This, the paper said, was partly because there are fewer ethnic "ghettos" here. In another local paper, a recent commentary on racism in schools suggested that introducing multicultural initiatives only serves to accentuate the differences and hinders integration. Although they seemed to contradict each other, both articles put forth the idea that celebrations of diversity encourage isolation.

Both may also indicate a climate that's made it hard for our city's most vibrant cultural festivals to stay afloat. Over the past decade or so, difficulty gaining government funding and private sponsorships to sustain and expand these events, as well as problems with real and perceived rowdiness, has led some organizing committees to close up shop. But all that is starting to change: one of those disappeared celebrations, Greek Day, which was held in Kitsilano from 1974 to 1988, is re-emerging this year after a 16-year absence. Its resurrection is thanks in part to a stronger commitment from the current Vancouver government.

"It seems lately that the tide is turning," said Greek Day's Nick Panos, who founded the festival in 1974, in a phone interview.

That turning tide is largely the result of a pledge made by Mayor Larry Campbell in his 2002 inaugural address to bring some fun back to our city. Campbell stood behind the promise by setting up a Celebration Grants program.

Celebration Grants through the City of Vancouver are awarded to community festivals, cultural celebrations, and parades. This grant program differs from regular cultural grants in that it includes both arts and nonarts organizations such as neighbourhood houses, residents associations, and community-service groups. In 2004 alone, 29 such grants have been awarded to six new festivals, including Festival Ha' Rikud, featuring Israeli dance; Celebration of Chile; Festival of Latin American Jewish Culture; a Fiji Festival; and Celebrating Métis Culture & Heritage. Two revived festivals are recipients of the grant, including Greek Day.

The culmination of the weeklong Hellenic Cultural Week, Greek Day returns to Kits this year on July 18. At its height in 1988 it attracted as many as 60,000 revellers. Panos regrets that the festival's growth exceeded its capability to pay for such things as permits and security. Media reports pointed to drinking outside party limits as the problem.

Panos said that his festival gave Greek immigrants to Canada an opportunity to remember and celebrate home while in their adopted country. Greek Day on Broadway will feature music, food, and other cultural specialities from the Mediterranean nation.

To assuage community concerns, Panos and the festival's organizing committee have this year taken precautionary measures. Entrances and exits will be watched by security and police, and the liquor served will be controlled.

CityFest, a two-day ethnically diverse arts-and-culture festival held earlier this month at Hastings Park, was also a recipient of a Celebration Grant. "We are always talking about utopian ideals of tolerance for global diversity, but all that starts right in our own cities," CityFest head Nina Rajwani said in a telephone interview.

Ron Rogers helms the Caribbean Days Festival on July 24 and 25 at Waterfront Park in North Vancouver. Not eligible for the City of Vancouver grant, Caribbean Days receives funding from the City and District of North Vancouver. His celebration has been running since 1988, and last year enjoyed an estimated attendance of 30,000 people. Rogers said in a telephone interview that he has experienced "no problems at all" in terms of public disturbance. He attributes the festival's survival to the support it receives from a growing audience. Where Caribbean Days runs into obstacles is getting local businesses onboard. On this point Rogers is passionate: "The support from the business community has been nonexistent," he said. "For years we have been trying to make them see that our festival generates business in the Lower Lonsdale area. We're just looking for some reciprocity."

After taking three years off to regroup and re-create their festival, Rajwani and her CityFest team were thrilled to announce that they had welcomed 8,000 attendees this past June. The support of the City of Vancouver, as well as that of the Vancouver park board, local businesses, police, and the media, guarantees that CityFest will be back next year, she said. With success like that, ethnically diverse festivals could finally make a comeback in Vancouver, ensuring more colourful, multicultural summers to come.