Powell Street Festival cancels August 2020 gathering, but commits to finding a socially distanced way to celebrate Japanese culture

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      Vancouver's annual celebration of Japanese Canadian culture has cancelled its event in and around Oppenheimer Park for August 1 and 2.

      But the Powell Street Festival says it is going to look at alternate ways to engage the arts.

      The group said it made the difficult decision "in solidarity with" the high-risk population that surrounds it in the Downtown Eastside location where it happens every summer. Oppenheimer Park, the traditional centre for the fest, is a huge concern for outbreak in the city as it has become a camp for the homeless. 

       “Our festival is first and foremost, a celebration of community and culture.  We may not be gathering together physically but we are united in spirit.  Because of our deep historic roots in the festival’s geographic location of the Downtown Eastside (DTES), we are committed to the people currently living in the neighbourhood and stand in solidarity with them,” board president Edward Takayanagi said in the announcement today.  

      In committing to some alternate form of celebration he added: “During the festival weekend, August 1 and 2, 2020, the 44th Powell Street Festival will adapt its Japanese Canadian celebration to transcend the COVID-19 pandemic and to uplift communities and people in need. There will be no public gathering but we will create opportunities for everyone — artists, festival attendees, volunteers, vendors, DTES residents, and the Japanese Canadian community at large — to enjoy art, culture and community.” 

      Before festivities last year, the Powell fest announced it had  designed a site map that it wouldn't displace the people who have erected tents and are living in Oppenheimer Park.

      In 2014, the Powell Street Festival moved out of Oppenheimer Park in response to a tent city on the grounds. It centred its activities at Alexander Street and Jackson Avenue instead. By August 2015, however, crowds of festivalgoers were back in Oppenheimer Park eating sushi, listening to traditional and contemporary music, watching martial-arts displays, and checking out Japanese works of art.

      The neighbourhood used to be a thriving centre of Japanese culture at the turn of the last century. Known as Paueru Gai, it was hit hard by the forced removal and internment of Japanese Canadians in 1942, during the Second World War. Some point to that exodus as one of the big factors setting the stage for the poverty and social problems that beset the Downtown Eastside.

      A group of Japanese immigrants and third-generation Japanese Canadians initiated the Powell fest in 1977, on the centennial year of Japanese Canadian settlement in Canada, and 35 years after internment.

      As far as the high-density, high-COVID-19-risk homeless situation at Oppenheimer Park goes, the provincial government has set a deadline of May 9 to transition people out of encampments, including the one there. This came as a result of an order by Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth under the Emergency Program Act as part of B.C.'s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.