Game changers Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling give a voice to the community at the Heart of the City Festival

They've also made a priority of programming Indigenous artists and storytellers

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      This year, the married couple that produces the Heart of the City Festival have new names.

      Terry Hunter can now call himself Nang Gulgaa; his wife, Savannah Walling, bears the name hl Gat’saa. It came as a result of them being adopted into the Stlenga-lanas Haida clan in May.

      “We knew that there had been quite a lot of preparation and thought that had gone into asking us to do this,” Walling told the Straight in a recent phone interview. “And we also knew that it would be a journey that would carry responsibilities that would unfold over time.”

      Her Haida name means “supporter of all”, whereas her husband’s is translated as “industrious one”. Hunter, who was also on the call, told the Straight that the adoption is linked to the work they did in helping draw attention to Haida carver Skundaal’s (whose English name is Bernice Williams) Survivors Totem Pole.

      The thousand-year-old pole was raised in the Downtown Eastside in 2016. Last year, the Heart of the City Festival screened Susanne Tabata’s 25-minute film about how it was carved and then raised in Pigeon Park at Carrall and Hastings streets.

      “We know it’s a game-changing situation to us,” Hunter said of being adopted into a Haida clan. “It deepens our relationship to this community and it deepens our responsibility to this land as members of this clan.”

      This year, the Heart of the City Festival’s theme is “Stories We Need to Hear”. And one of the stories that festivalgoers will be exposed to this year is Hunter and Walling’s 50-year journey as creative artists, producers, community builders, and residents of the Downtown Eastside.

      The online event will take place from 1 to 2:30 p.m. on October 31, featuring stories, memories and conversations with long-time colleagues. They include the former director of the Carnegie Community Centre, Michael Clague, as well as multimedia artists Rosemary Georgeson and Mildred Grace German, dancer and choreographer Karen Jamieson, and writer and producer Renae Morriseau.

      Video: Watch the raising of the Survivors Totem Pole in the Downtown Eastside.
      City of Vancouver

      In addition, there will be a photo exhibit from October 27 to November 27 in the Carnegie Centre’s third-floor gallery.

      According to Hunter, this display will be artfully presented, but it won’t be filled with framed photos like something a person might see in a museum.

      “We’re also going to be sharing the photos online,” Hunter said. “We will use the photographs as a springboard [for] talking about our work. And thanking and acknowledging the many incredible colleagues we’ve worked with over the years.”

      It’s been a long and unusual road they’ve taken together over the past 50 years. They met when they were both involved in a noncredit arts program at Simon Fraser University. Hunter recalled being totally smitten seeing Walling dancing on-stage. He was even more thrilled when she joined a mime troupe that he was part of.

      “Simon Fraser University was full of Americans who had come up to avoid the war,” Hunter said. “So a lot of my friends like Savannah and others were Americans. And the arts were a place that people gravitated to—to explore and to give a voice to their creativity.”

      Walling pointed out that many highly skilled choreographers, dancers, and theatre artists were coming from all over the city to take the noncredit courses. “There was quite a lot of interdisciplinary mixing at that time,” she noted.

      The couple went on to form Terminal City Dance in 1975 with Jamieson, drawing on everything from ballet to mime, theatre, and gymnastics. Eventually, Walling and Hunter formed Vancouver Moving Theatre and Jamieson formed the Karen Jamieson Dance Company. Terminal City Dance Society evolved into the VDC Dance Center Society, which has been operating the Scotiabank Dance Centre for the past 20 years.

      “We entered into a whole new phase of our work where we started doing a lot of international touring,” Hunter said. “That phase went pretty much into the mid 1990s.”

      Walling noted out that in this period, they collaborated with some impressive theatre artists, including Richard Fowler. The couple also worked with Touchstone Theatre, Ruby Slippers Theatre, Neworld Theatre, and Trickster Theatre on various productions, including Crime and Punishment and The Idiot.

      Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling were adopted into a Haida clan after spending many years amplifying the voices of Indigenous residents of the Downtown Eastside.
      David Cooper

      Heart of the City grew from a play

      A major turning point came in 2003 when Hunter and Walling partnered with the Carnegie Community Centre Association to create a play on the building’s 100th anniversary. In the Heart of the City: the Downtown Eastside Community Play included about 80 community members, most of whom had never performed on-stage.

      “There was such an excitement from what was created—the power of what was created—and the depth with which it engaged people,” Walling recalled. “The people within it and the audiences cared so much about what they were seeing reflected.

      This was the catalyst for the creation of the annual Heart of the City Festival, which shines a spotlight on Downtown Eastside performers, artists, and storytellers. In the process of giving a voice to neighbourhood residents, Hunter and Walling have become community builders.

      “There’s a part of leadership that is not so much about walking ahead and leading the way,” Walling emphasized. “There’s a part of leadership that’s almost like being behind the canoe and just checking up on what’s coming behind you.”

      She and Hunter added that it’s also vitally important to listen to the community. And the stories that emerged in the community play became the source for many productions and events that followed in subsequent years.

      That includes shining a light on the harm-reduction movement, which emerged from the Downtown Eastside. The neighbourhood drew attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls many years before this became the topic of a national public inquiry.

      “I would say the Downtown Eastside is a place that gives birth to visionary ideas and takes leadership within this country,” Hunter said.

      This year, they’re proud that the festival is featuring the launch of the three-year Honouring Our Grandmothers Healing Journey. It includes storytelling, ceremonies, and teachings in Oppenheimer Park as a tribute to women who travelled from the Fraser Canyon and Thompson River basin to the Downtown Eastside and who later became grandmothers.

      This overlay of ceremony with cultural practices has shaped the couple’s ideas about what constitutes art. Their thinking in this regard began to evolve back in 2003 when actor Stephen Lytton was the lead performer in the community play. And it has deepened with all the connections they’ve made with Indigenous artists over the years.

      “It’s a whole world view that is very different than a western world view on what art is all about,” Hunter said. “It’s really fantastic to be involved in that. As someone like myself, a westerner, I’m getting to see the world in a new and fresh way. That’s really exciting.”