David Cooper is renowned for the skill with which he captures energy and light in photographs and film. But the multiple-award-winning artist was not appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 2020 only for his “innovative contributions to Canadian performance photography,” but also “for his dedicated mentorship of emerging artists.” One of the many ways in which he has shown that dedication is his support of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) community in which he is based.
Cooper has taken countless photographs for the DTES Heart of the City Festival since the annual festival began 19 years ago, and for Vancouver Moving Theatre – the festival’s main presenter, along with Carnegie Community Centre and the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians – for at least three decades. The festival photo sessions at his studio have been community-building gatherings and the festival provides copies of their photos to the culturally and socially diverse artists who live, perform and create in the neighbourhood. This year’s Heart of the City takes place Oct. 26-Nov. 6, with more than 100 events throughout the DTES and online.
It was Vancouver Moving Theatre co-founder Terry Hunter who introduced Cooper to the Heart of the City Festival, since it involved artists, writers, singers and storytellers and Cooper’s career has always been in the arts. Though that wasn’t always where his interest lay.
“I started training at U of T [University of Toronto] for architecture,” Cooper told the Independent. “It was a five-year undergraduate program and I came out west after my second year, as a break. I’ve always had a camera but never had formal photography training beyond a summer course at Banff when I was a teenager. Through a friend, I checked out a local theatre company to see if they needed any photos taken. Eventually, I was given a chance to shoot a play at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, directed by Christopher Newton. They were really excited about the results from a dress rehearsal and offered me a job. I spent four years there in the publicity department, also creating posters and marketing material.”
Cooper is from Forest Hill in Toronto. He grew up in a conservative Jewish neighbourhood. “I went to Hebrew school but I stopped practising Judaism when I moved out west from my family,” he said. “I still go back for special occasions and joined the JCC here in Vancouver.”
As a theatre, dance and music photographer for more than 40 years, Cooper’s photos and videos have publicized more than 60 companies throughout Canada and the United States. The Shaw Festival, Bard on the Beach, Arts Club Theatre, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, 605 Collective, Karen Flamenco Company, Vancouver Opera, Vancouver Symphony, Electra Women’s Choir, Chor Leoni Men’s Choir, Spirit of the West and Uzume Taiko Drummers are just a dozen-plus of the groups with which he has worked. He has been a stills photographer for several TV series and his dance videos have been shown internationally. In addition, he teaches and mentors students, holds workshops for both amateur and professional photographers, and photographs for theatre and dance schools.
Among the many recognitions Cooper has garnered, he received a Jessie Richardson Theatre Award in 1995 for his outstanding contribution to the Vancouver arts community and was elected a pioneer member of the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2006.
“I’ve mostly been a theatre photographer, shooting live shows,” said Cooper. “I spent 15 years shooting film and transitioned to digital in 2001. It was a Canada Council grant in 1978 that took me to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to learn more about ballet and I spent two weeks in class and rehearsals documenting the process.”
Firefly Books in Ontario recently published the coffee table book David Cooper Body of Work: Theatre and Dance Photography. Each of the 500 copies published includes a limited-edition print signed by Cooper.
“I have worked with a great graphic designer and art director, Scott McKowen, for 30 years, photographing marketing materials for the Stratford Festival, the Shaw Festival, Yale Repertory Theatre, Canadian Stage, Theatre Calgary and others together,” said Cooper of how the publication came to be. “He suggested we compile all our work into a book and include my dance work that is separate from the theatre.”
According to Firefly’s website, the book includes essays on Cooper’s theatre photography (by Newton, artistic director emeritus of the Shaw Festival), on his dance images (by Vancouver writer and arts commentator Max Wyman) and on his marketing images (by McKowen). Ballet dancer Evelyn Hart “has contributed an appreciation, and Cooper himself discusses the most intimate relationship between photographer and subject – portraiture.”
When asked what the most gratifying parts of his career are, Cooper told the Independent: “Working with talented performers. Getting to travel all across Canada and the U.S. shooting for different arts organizations.”
Firefighters Daniel Greenberg, left, and Adam Bender. (photo from Adam Bender)
There are not many Jewish firefighters in Vancouver – but two of them serve together in Fire Hall #2 in the Downtown Eastside.
Being Jewish is not all Daniel Greenberg and Adam Bender have in common. They are also both Ontario-born men, about 40, who came to firefighting comparatively late in life after other careers. And both have young families who they get to spend quality time with because the shift work inherent in their profession offers a flexibility that the 9-to-5 grind does not.
The two met while stationed together in the Downtown Eastside, a posting unlike any other in the city. The vast majority of calls to which they respond are drug overdoses and related emergencies. The leading minds of politics, policing and healthcare have not been able to resolve the epidemic of addiction that grips the neighbourhood and, if firefighters had the solution, it would have been implemented by now, but they don’t.
“This issue is often discussed amongst the firefighters,” said Greenberg. “We obviously don’t know the solution. It’s a terrible situation. It is difficult to see. You are seeing human beings living in a state that, honestly, you don’t expect human beings to live in…. Safer places for them to go, more permanent housing situations, access to treatment programs – any and all of the above sound wonderful and ideal.”
Vancouver Fire and Rescue recognizes the toll that serving in this challenging hall can take and they have a limit of 80 shifts – or about a year – before being transferred to a more conventional hall.
When he started, Greenberg got some advice from a veteran firefighter.
“Don’t make their emergency your emergency,” he was told. This may be easier said than done, of course, and Greenberg said the fire department takes the risks seriously. During recruitment, trainees go through resiliency training to prepare them in advance for what they might encounter, and the department is sensitive to the impacts tough calls can have.
“If we witness a particularly troubling call, you are essentially taken out of service and you are provided with counseling,” said Greenberg.
This is a major advancement from the old-style approach, which Greenberg characterized as “Tough it up, shake it off, on to the next.”
“We are all made to feel really supported,” he said of the current atmosphere.
Greenberg became a firefighter in Ontario after working in construction and teaching physical education and kids with special needs. He moved west when his wife, Emily Greenberg, was hired as head of school at Vancouver Talmud Torah. They have three kids, ages 12, 10 and 6.
“I was really searching for a career path that I’d be very passionate about, that would suit my strengths and my interests. Frankly, also, a job that could support my family and my wife not only financially but also me being able to be around the family a lot more than a simple 9-to-5,” he said.
Jewish people may be overrepresented in many helping professions, but not this one. Greenberg isn’t sure why.
“I think, historically, whether I’m generalizing or not, most Jews are steered towards professions that are more of the white-collar variety: lawyers, doctors, builders, entrepreneurs,” he said. “Certainly anything that involves a level of danger, perhaps, doesn’t speak to Jewish people. Mothers are probably a key ingredient there.”
Coming to firefighting after wider experiences, Greenberg has no regrets.
“It’s really exceeded my expectations,” he said. “Every firefighter I speak to truly loves the job.”
He sees his work as an embodiment of the value of tikkun olam.
“I’m fortunate to have a job and a career where I may not be helping the world at large per se, but to an individual in that moment, in their most dire moment, it feels pretty good to be there with my crew helping them and potentially saving lives,” he said.
Greenberg also picks up some shifts as a supply teacher and he is starting a new side business involving cosmetic tattooing for hair loss. He noted that he may be the only Jewish vegan firefighter in North America.
Greenberg met Adam Bender at the hall. It was a total coincidence that two practising Jews – maybe the only ones on the job – would end up in the same station.
Bender was born in Oakville, Ont., but spent formative years in Israel. His parents moved there when he was a year old and they returned to Canada around the time of the first Gulf War, when Bender was in Grade 1.
In Hamilton, Ont., at this point, Bender admitted he was not a model student.
“To say that I was kind of a piece of crap would be an understatement,” he said. He was kicked out of school and, to avoid being kicked out of his house, he made a deal to go on a five-month ulpan on a kibbutz in Israel.
But Bender’s parents got more than they bargained for when he returned home from ulpan with a surprise.
“I did something my parents I don’t think thought was part of the deal when I signed up for ulpan,” he said. “I signed up with the Israeli army. I broke the news to them when I came home that I was going back in a month.”
He served two years (since he was joining at age 21, rather than 18, he was not required to commit to the usual three years) and made it into the paratroopers and special forces.
“Special forces unit [was] probably the biggest influence on my character in terms of understanding the ability to accomplish goals,” said Bender. He returned to Canada, intending to study at the University of Toronto but, again, school wasn’t a good fit and he joined the Canadian military. There, he also served in the special forces.
He met his now-wife and proposed shortly before a six-month deployment in Iraq. The understanding was more intuitive than explicit that, for the marriage to work, a career other than the military was required.
They married in 2017 and now have two kids, 3 and 1. He joined Vancouver Fire and Rescue in 2018.
Like Greenberg, Bender isn’t sure why more Jews don’t choose their path, but suggests “the Jewish grandmother card” may play a role. “There’s a lot of other professions that are a lot more attractive, let’s say, and safer. Firefighting is a blue-collar job at the end of the day.”
The Greenberg and Bender families hope to get together for Shabbat dinner one of these weeks, but the pandemic has thwarted that hope so far. Meanwhile, Bender said, it’s a happy coincidence that the two tribe members ended up together.
“There obviously wasn’t any strategic implementation of putting the two Jewish kids together on one crew,” said Bender. “We’re kind of lucky that that happened.”
The Nov. 1 online event Finding Grounds for Goodness includes the première presentation of Finding Grounds for Goodness in the Downtown Eastside, which was created during last year’s Heart of the City Festival. (photo from Jumblies Theatre)
This year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which runs Oct. 27-Nov. 7, includes the screening of short videos from Jumblies Theatre and partners on the theme of “social goodness.”
Jumblies’ multi-year Grounds for Goodness project is an artful exploration of why and how people sometimes act in good ways towards each other. As it has adapted to community-engaged art-making during pandemic times, this project has generated a varied and whimsical collection of short videos with communities and artists from around Canada.
At the Nov. 1, 4 p.m., online event Finding Grounds for Goodness, hosted from Toronto by Jumblies staff, a sampling of these short films will be shared, including the première presentation of Finding Grounds for Goodness in the Downtown Eastside, which was created during last year’s Heart of the City Festival with DTES creative community members and Vancouver and Toronto artists.
Jewish community member Ruth Howard is the founder and artistic director of Jumblies Theatre, which makes art in everyday and extraordinary places with, for and about the people and stories found there. The Jumblies project was originally inspired by the history about the rescue of Albanian Jews during the Second World War by Albanian Muslim people.
Composer Martin van de Ven, an expert in klezmer and Jewish music, who has been involved in many Jumblies projects, told the Independent, in an interview last year about the DTES’s Grounds for Goodness, about besa, “an Albanian Islamic concept about hospitality and the need to help and protect guests and those in need within and beyond your community.
“In Albania,” he explained, “during the Second World War (and Italian and then Nazi occupation), this meant that almost all Jewish people living and finding refuge in Albania were sheltered and hidden, and Albania ended up with a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at the beginning.” (See jewishindependent.ca/highlighting-goodness.)
The festival at large
The 18th Annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival is presented by Vancouver Moving Theatre in association with Carnegie Community Centre, the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians and a host of community partners. It will feature more than 100 events throughout the DTES and online.
This year’s festival theme, “Stories We Need to Hear,” resonates today as people grapple with the dramatic impact of the pandemic, ongoing displacement, the fentanyl crisis, and the reality of bigotry and systemic racism.
In the words of late DTES poet Sandy Cameron, “When we tell our stories we draw our own maps, and question the maps of the powerful. Each of us has something to tell, something to teach.”
The 12-day festival includes music, stories, poetry, theatre, ceremony, films, readings, forums, workshops, discussions, art talks, history talks and visual art exhibitions. The Art in the Streets program features surprise pop-up music and spoken word activities on sidewalks and small plazas throughout the historic district.
A few highlights of this year’s festival are We Live Here, a large-scale outdoor project projecting hyper-speed videos of Downtown Eastside artists’ artwork, produced by Radix Theatre; Honouring Our Grandmothers’ Healing Journey Launch, three days of ceremony, teachings and storytelling honouring grandmothers who traveled to the DTES (with Further We Rise Collective and Wild Salmon Caravan); and Indigenous Journeys: Solos by Three Woman, which profiles local artists Priscillia Mays Tait (Gitxsan/Wet’suwet’en), Kat Zu’comulwat Norris (Lyackson First Nation) and Gunargie O’Sullivan aka ga’axstasalas (Kwakuilth Nation).
Elder and activist Grace Eiko Thomson reads from and talks about her book Chiru Sakura (Falling Cherry Blossoms), which chronicles her and her mother’s journey through racism, and Eiko Thomson’s advocacy for the rights of Canadians of Japanese ancestry. In My Art Is Activism: Part III, DTES resident Sid Chow Tan shares videos from his archival collection that highlight Chinese Canadian social movements and direct action in Chinatown, particularly redress for Chinese head tax and exclusion. And the ensemble Illicit Projects presents Incarcerated: Truth in Shadows, three shadow plays dedicated to people who have faced unjust treatment in Canada’s incarceration system.
Other events honour various DTES performing artists and shared cultures. The festival involves professional, community, emerging and student artists, and lovers of the arts.
Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making, led by Ruth Howard, is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which starts Oct. 28. (photo by Adrienne Marcus Raja)
Tikkun olam, the imperative to repair the world in which we live, is a core influence of the project Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making. Led by Toronto-based theatre designer and educator Ruth Howard, the residency is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival.
The festival runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 8, and Grounds for Goodness, which “explores why and how people sometimes do good things towards others,” takes place Oct. 30 to Nov. 12. It comprises participant and audience interactive story-sharing, art-making, workshops and an evolving gallery online, as well as Downtown Eastside window displays. The residency is co-produced by Jumblies Theatre and Arts and Vancouver Moving Theatre.
Howard – who has participated in the festival before (jewishindependent.ca/putting-heart-into-city) – is the founder of Jumblies. She said tikkun olam is an underlying motivator in all her work – “and one of this project’s explicit intents is to connect its themes and questions, my Jewish heritage as a second generation Holocaust survivor and my vocation a community-engaged artist.
“Community arts is predicated on the working belief that bringing people together across differences can foster commonality and understanding,” she explained. “And yet, growing up in the 1960s, as the child of a German Jewish refugee (my mother and family escaped to England in 1938) and an experimental psychologist, I was bred on evidence that groups of people tend to do atrocious things towards others, with goodness being individual heroic exceptions. I was told at a young age about [Stanley] Milgram’s electric shock experiments, and understood the link between such cautionary tales and attempts by survivors to explain the Holocaust. My own uncle – Henri Tajfel, both social psychologist and Holocaust survivor – coined the term ‘social identity theory.’
“Therefore, my attention was grabbed a few years ago when I read some books about the saving of Danish and Bulgarian Jewish populations during the Holocaust by citizens of those countries. The Danish story was slightly familiar to me and the Bulgarian one not at all. I have since become quite obsessed by these and other instances (for example, Albania, the Rosenstrasse protests) that run against the grain of my and other people’s common assumptions about human behaviour and ‘nature.’ I felt compelled to tell these stories and learn more about the reasons behind them. I started to investigate the notion of ‘social goodness’ from many angles: history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, memory, folk tale, legend, theory.”
With the help of independent research and creation grants, Howard “gradually brought the project into the work of Jumblies, inviting and including the responses of diverse community participants and groups. Now, we have a broad and growing repertoire of stories with which to play.
“However,” she stressed, “it’s important to me to uphold the project’s origins in Jewish perspectives and histories, and my own Jewishness: a complicated mix of darkness, hope and urgency to understand how to cultivate grounds for goodness through never forgetting what can happen in its absence.”
The Jumblies team in Toronto includes Howard’s daughter, web designer and choir conductor Shifra Cooper, and composer Martin van de Ven, also a member of the Jewish community.
In addition to being a composer for film, television, theatre and dance, van de Ven is a music facilitator and educator. He is also a clarinetist and has performed with the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Chutzpah Ensemble, and Beyond the Pale. He has been involved in many Jumblies projects – as musical director, composer and/or performer. “Ruth and I have written several choral works together,” he told the Independent.
“To me, Jumblies is the embodiment of a music and art-making philosophy that believes the arts are there for everyone to create and not just for the well-trained elite,” he said. “Composers such as John Cage and Canada’s R. Murray Schafer talk about this in their writing and both were an early influence on my music education. Jumblies allows me to use my own skills and training to combine the efforts of trained and non-trained performers to create art, and specifically music, that serves the purpose of the moment, whether a stand-alone piece or something that supports a story being told. I think this work is important; it democratizes and decommodifies music-making and breaks down barriers to creation for community members who are otherwise shut out of the creative process. The myth that music-making is the sole purview of the highly skilled, and it is only worthwhile if it is commodified into a product to be consumed, is damaging to the whole idea of ‘homo ludens,’ the idea that a fundamental human attribute is the ability to play, invent and create.”
The community choir that Cooper directs embodies this concept of art being for everyone.
“The Gather Round Singers is an intergenerational community choir, made up of 30-plus mixed-ability, multi-aged singers, from across Toronto and beyond,” she said. “We exist within Jumblies Theatre, and so share their dedication to radical inclusivity and benefit from their experience in creating interdisciplinary work.”
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the choir has been meeting weekly online since April, said Cooper, “to rehearse and perform new choral works designed or adapted for this new context” – that “[c]horal music is among the more challenging forms to adapt to online gathering, as video calling platforms such as Zoom are designed to reduce vocal overlap, and create latency that makes in-sync singing impossible.”
The Gather Round Singers will perform two new pieces for the opening of the DTES Vancouver residency, said Cooper – “one a world première by Martin van de Ven and one a work-in-progress by Arie Verheul van de Ven, both of which were developed this summer especially to be performed on Zoom. These are both part of Jumblies’ larger Grounds for Goodness project, which continues until a final presentation in June 2021, and will include several other new musical and choral pieces … and other composers (including Andrew Balfour, Christina Volpini and Cheldon Paterson).”
“Grounds for Goodness overall is a multi-year project that includes many partners, places and participants,” explained Howard. “It has been taking place through real-live and virtual activities for almost two years. There have been episodes in Nipissing First Nation (near North Bay, Ont.), Montreal, Brampton, the Ottawa Valley, Algoma Region (northern Ontario), and with various Toronto groups.… We have received funds to tour the project, which have now been adapted to allow for ‘virtual touring.’ The Vancouver iteration is the next big chapter in this project.”
For Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside, Martin van de Ven said, “we’ll be premièring a work called ‘Besa.’ ‘Besa’ is an Albanian Islamic concept about hospitality and the need to help and protect guests and those in need within and beyond your community.
“In Albania, during the Second World War (and Italian and then Nazi occupation), this meant that almost all Jewish people living and finding refuge in Albania were sheltered and hidden, and Albania ended up with a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at the beginning. We created a work based on texts found in writings and interviews with Albanians – from the book Besa: Muslims who Saved Jews During WW II by Norman H. Gershman.
“The COVID-19 restrictions prevented us from developing this piece as we normally would,” he continued, “and so I composed a work that could be performed and rehearsed with everyone being online. It involved researching the technology, experimenting with Zoom meetings and audio programs, as well as writing music that allowed for enough flexibility to deal with internet latency. For our Vancouver residency, we will be presenting this work and sharing our experience of creating an artwork to be performed online with members of the Vancouver art community.”
Those Vancouver artists include Savannah Walling, Olivia C. Davies, Beverly Dobrinsky, Khari Wendell McClelland, Renae Morriseau and Rianne Svelnis, as well as 10 DTES-involved participants.
* * *
Van de Ven started music lessons when he was 6 years old – on recorder. “In elementary school,” he said, “my friends and I decided we wanted to form a circus. As the only one in the group with musical training, I was charged with writing the theme for the circus band. I dutifully started writing down half notes and quarter notes on paper and tried to play them on the recorder. The method worked fine but I soon realized I would need some additional training if I wanted it to sound good.
“I ended up with a musical education partially shaped by my father’s interest and taste for very modern classical and jazz music and eventually formal training at university,” he said. “In my late teens, I realized that my interest in science and engineering paled compared to the excitement I felt for a live performance, whether as an audience member or as a performer.”
In university, in addition to his formal training, van de Ven was involved in various jazz programs and, eventually, studied and performed in free improv ensembles. He also did a short stint in Europe, studying early computer music in electronic sound synthesis.
“Klezmer music has a history deeply rooted in East European and Middle Eastern music traditions. As a clarinetist,” he said, “it provided for me a wonderful vehicle to not only deeply emerge myself into a culture other than my own but also perform a lead role playing in a band.”
For her part, Cooper has loved choral singing her whole life. “And I bring this love to my own work,” she said, “while having always believed that bringing together community arts and choral singing requires a flexibility and a softening of our understanding of the boundaries of what ‘choral music’ can be – this is something that I have always been creatively driven by. In these times, I’m learning a lot more about how far this can go.
“Sometimes, turning things on their head can be revealing of new approaches, considerations or perspectives,” she said. “For example, one young woman who has sung with the choir for many years, said to me the other day: ‘In rehearsal, I always sit in the back row, so I only see the backs of people’s heads. I like on Zoom that I can see the faces of everyone I’m singing and performing with.’ Another choir member told me that she feels more confident and motivated to practise when she has her microphone off and is alone in her room following along – this confidence comes through strikingly in the recordings she shared with me for one of our digital projects. In these ways, sometimes, working online has revealed the limitations of our previously established norms for singing in-person. I think often now about how, whenever we can safely be back together, we might incorporate these learnings.
“Which is not to gloss over any of the challenges of meeting online,” stressed Cooper. “I think I can speak for at least the majority of the choir when I say we all immensely miss singing together – in sync, in harmony, in rhythm. And a digital space, even though full of many possibilities, is also full of boundaries and obstacles to folks joining in, especially those experiencing more precarious housing or financial insecurity. Our team worked closely all summer with members of the choir community to bridge this gap, purchasing and delivering internet-enabled devices to choir members and providing remote and in-person (socially distanced) trainings and trouble-shooting.” They did so with funding from several sources, notably the Toronto Foundation.
“Another part of my work has often included event management and digital design and, in the new reality of virtual art-making, these two often come together in interesting ways,” Cooper added. “I’m delighted to be designing a new interactive website for Grounds for Goodness at the DTES Heart of the City Festival, that will act as an online evolving gallery, showcasing new work created through the community workshops and acting as the container and guide for the culminating virtual event.”
The theme for this year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival is “This Gives Us Strength.” One of the more than 50 events that will take place over the festival’s 12 days is Spotlight on the East End on Oct. 30, 8:30 p.m. Curated by artist-in-residence Khari Wendell McClelland, the online presentation will feature “the compelling creativity and strength of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside-involved artists and residents who illuminate the vitality, relevance and resilience of our neighbourhood and its rich traditions, cultural roots and music.” Among those artists is klezmer-punk accordionist Geoff Berner, with whom JI readers will be familiar.
JI: You released Welcome to the Grand Hotel Cosmopolis late last year (jewishindependent.ca/honestly-jewish-and-radical) and you also had a new musical, then COVID hit. What have you been doing creatively over this time?
GB: I just finished working on a lovely project for KlezKanada with the great theatre artist Jenny Romaine and a lot of other talented folks. It’s called Vu Bistu Geven? (Where Have You Been?) and it’s about figuring out the history of the land that KlezKanada takes place on. It was commissioned for their 25th anniversary. It felt particularly right to work with Trina Stacey, a Kanien’kéha singer, researcher and teacher. We talked a lot during the making of the piece about the value of recovering our ancestors’ languages, in order to find a way to think outside of capitalism and colonialism.
JI: You were scheduled to perform an outdoors concert in Roberts Creek Sept. 11. Did that happen? In what ways does an in-person audience affect your performance?
GB: Yep, that concert went off nicely. Everyone was outdoors and properly distanced. The folks in Roberts Creek are lovely. I’ve played only two other shows like that since the pandemic, one at a park in Vancouver, for Alan Zisman, and another in Chilliwack at the Tractor Grease. It sure was nice to play live again. It’s been a bit of a strain these past months, not being able to do the thing I’ve devoted my life to doing. I miss that magic human connection that only live music can do.
JI: What inspires you to participate in events like the DTES Heart of the City Festival?
GB: What inspires me is the honour to be invited. I’ve tried to be a friend to folks in the DTES, opposing displacement by City Hall-backed developers, fighting to stop the war on drugs, fighting against legislated poverty, and other stuff. It means a lot that I’m allowed to be part of things.
JI: Chelm is a recurring theme/subject in your work. If you had to offer “advice from Chelm” for people coping right now, what might that be?
GB: Advice from Chelm? Well, Chelm was the “Village of Fools” of Jewish legend, but in fact it was a real place, where the people had to struggle to survive. They weren’t fools at all, just ordinary people trying to live. Several fine Yiddish poets came from Chelm. So the advice from Chelm is, the real fools are people who look down on communities of other human beings.
JI: You helped start the BC Ecosocialist Party. Any opinions on the election you’d like to share?
GB: I have real hopes for the BC Ecosocialists. B.C. voters need to at least have the choice to be able to vote for people who will actually stand up against LNG, Site C, legislated poverty, colonialism and the war on drugs.
Tale of the Eastside Lantern’s Shon Wong and Rosa Cheng. (photo by David Cooper)
Among the many artists participating in this year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival is Jewish community member Elliot Polsky. The multi-percussionist joins the Son of James Band in Tale of the Eastside Lantern, a workshop presentation of a new hybrid Chinese rock opera.
From Oct. 30 to Nov. 10, the annual Heart of the City offers 12 days of music, stories, theatre, poetry, cultural celebrations, films, dance, readings, forums, workshops, discussions, gallery exhibits, mixed media, art talks, history talks and history walks. More than 100 events are scheduled to take place at more than 40 locations throughout the Downtown Eastside. This year’s theme – “Holding the Light” – has emerged from the need of Downtown Eastside-involved artists and residents to illuminate the vitality and relevance of the Downtown Eastside community and its diverse traditions, knowledge systems, ancestral languages, cultural roots and stories.
Tale of the Eastside Lantern is one of the top festival picks: “In the streets and shops of Vancouver’s Chinatown, Jimmy wrestles with his personal demons and sets out to solve a mystery that is guarded by Chinese opera spirits of the underworld. Jimmy is led by the sounds of rock music and motivated by the oldest feeling in the world … love.” Written and composed by Shon Wong and directed by Andy Toth, the rock opera is produced by Vancouver Cantonese Opera and Son of James Band in partnership with Vancouver Moving Theatre. Performed in English and Cantonese, the workshop presentation takes place Oct. 31, 8 p.m., at CBC Studio 700. Tickets ($15) are available at the door or in advance from eastsidelantern2.eventbrite.ca.
Another top pick is Sis Ne’ Bi -Yïz: Mother Bear Speaks, written and performed by Taninli Wright (Wet’suwet’en) about her Messenger of Hope Walk – she walked 1,600 kilometres across British Columbia to give voice to First Nations children and other marginalized youth. Developed in collaboration with Laura Barron, Jason Clift, Julie McIsaac and Jessica Schacht, the play is produced by Instruments of Change. There are several performances Oct. 30-Nov. 3 at Firehall Arts Centre. For advance tickets ($20/$15), call 604-689-0926 or visit [email protected].
Written and performed by Yvonne Wallace (Lilwat) and directed by Jefferson Guzman, ūtszan (to make things better) follows the journey of a woman to reclaim her language; in the process, she uncovers indigenous knowledge, humour, strength and resilience. The play has three shows at the Firehall Oct. 31-Nov. 2, with tickets ($20/$15) available at the door and in advance.
Of special interest to the Jewish community, whose oral histories form part of Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter’s Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End, is the dramatization of that book, which was first published in 1979. Directed by Donna Spencer and co-produced by the Firehall and Vancouver Moving Theatre, Opening Doors has several performances Nov. 6-9 at the Firehall, with tickets $20/$15.
While there are these and other ticketed shows, most of the festival events are free to attend. For example, on Nov. 2, 11 a.m., at CRAB Park, there is a mini-landing of canoes, featuring a welcome ceremony, after which paddlers and guests journey on land to the Police Museum and the exhibition Healing Waters, an exploration of how communities heal through connecting to cultural practice. This landing, in honour of the inaugural Pulling Together canoe journey in 2001, launches a year of story gathering and history sharing in preparation for the 20th anniversary celebration of the Pulling Together Society at next year’s Heart of the City.
In Speaking in Tongues, guests Woody Morrison, David Ng, Grace Eiko Thomson and Dalannah Gail Bowen discuss mother tongues and how their interactions can give birth to hybrid languages such as Japanese Pidgin, which is unique to the West Coast of Canada. This conversation is part of Homing Pidgin, an interactive installation by Haruko Okano, and takes place on Nov. 2, 1 p.m., at Centre A (205-268 Keefer).
Meanwhile, Irreparable Harm? is by Sinister Sisters Ensemble – activists and theatre folk, young and old, First Nations and settlers, many of whom were arrested in the protests against the twinning of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. It uses videos, transcripts of the court proceedings and statements that were read in the courtroom to shine a light on the justice system. It is at Carnegie Theatre on Nov. 8, 3 p.m.
Geoff Berner will help open this year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival on Oct. 24. (photo by Genevieve Buechner)
Recently back from Ontario, where he joined Orkestar Kriminal for a few shows, singer-songwriter and accordionist Geoff Berner will help launch the 15th annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival on Oct. 24.
Berner will be part of Songs of Justice, Songs of Hope, an evening of activist songs, led by musician, composer and conductor Earle Peach and featuring Solidarity Notes Labour Choir, among others. Berner will perform a solo set, but, he told the Independent, “I’m open to some collaboration with the choir, if that’s something they’d like to do.”
Berner has worked with Peach before.
“We’ve both lived in Vancouver for decades. We’ve both been active in left-wing politics and stuff in Vancouver for a long time,” said Berner. “I’ve played events with the Solidarity Notes Choir over the years. We have a lot of ideas in common.”
Heart of the City comprises more than 100 events at 40-plus locations around the Downtown Eastside over 12 days. Presented by Vancouver Moving Theatre with Carnegie Community Centre, the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians and many community partners, this year’s theme is “Seeds of Justice, Seeds of Hope,” celebrating the community’s “history of advocacy for human rights and social justice.” The website notes there will be “music, stories, songs, poetry, cultural celebrations, films, theatre, dance, spoken word, workshops, discussions, gallery exhibitions, mixed media, art talks, history talks and history walks.”
About his decision to participate in festivals like Heart of the City, Berner said, “You can feel it when an event or a music venue is not about money, but about building community and getting strength from music and culture. This is one of those.”
Berner has had a busy year. In September 2017, he released a new album, Canadiana Grotesquica, and his second novel, The Fiddler is a Good Woman, came out in October 2017. In addition to performances throughout British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada, a European tour took him to many cities over several months. This coming November, he’s headed to Seattle and Los Angeles, with other dates no doubt in the planning.
In the latest news post on his website (Sept. 14), Berner welcomes everyone back to the September routine, “whether it’s a New Year for you, or not.”
While he makes “resolutions all the time, not only at Rosh Hashanah,” Berner said, “My routine is that I write songs, make an album about once every two years, and then tour around North America and Europe trying to spread the album as far and wide as I can. Then I do it all again. It’s a good job.”
True to form, Berner will head into the studio in January to get a new album ready for October 2019. It will be produced by Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, with whom Berner has worked since 2010.
“He is a valuable editor and idea generator,” said Berner of Dolgin. “He knows more about the recording studio, more about musical arrangement and more about Jewish music, especially klezmer music, than I do. So that all comes in pretty handy. And if he tells me, ‘no, you shouldn’t do that,’ he’s almost always right.”
People curious about what the album might sound like should mark their calendars for the Heart of the City opening. “There will be some brand new material from me at this festival,” Berner told the Independent. “See you at the show, I hope!”
The free Oct. 24 launch event takes place at Carnegie Theatre, 401 Main St., at 7 p.m.
Also participating in the festival is Vetta Chamber Music, with Seasons of the Sea, which melds contemporary classical music by local composer Jeffrey Ryan with a narrative written by Rosemary Georgeson. The original work, performed by Vetta Chamber Music and Georgeson, “describes the seasons on and by the sea, and is inspired by the 13 moon season of the Coast Salish peoples who used the tides and seasons of the sea as their calendar.” The show takes place Oct. 28, 3 p.m., at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, 578 Carrall St., and is admission by donation to the garden.
Last week, one of the largest and most influential social service agencies in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside became a centre of turmoil. The government moved in and fired much of the leadership of PHS (Portland Hotel Society) Community Services Society after an audit – in which the agency provided tepid cooperation – found the agency to have squandered vast sums on travel and luxuries for staff.
A routine audit by B.C. Housing late last year raised enough red flags to bring in an independent auditor. In 2013, the society received $18.7 million from the provincial government and $2.27 million from the federal government. Overall, PHS is a $28 million a year operation, which runs hundreds of provincially owned housing units in the city’s poorest area, intended to provide stable housing for individuals who had been left to the rapacious slumlords who once ruled the area.
In addition to the constellation of renovated hotels in the area, the society operates Insite, Vancouver’s (in)famous safe injection site, where people with addictions can find a safe place and sanitary equipment to use, and help in the event of an overdose. Insite is also an entry point for people to access primary care medical treatment and a range of treatment, housing and community supports.
According to the organization, during its 23 years of operating in the Downtown Eastside, deaths by drug overdose have fallen dramatically, as have HIV infection rates, while life expectance has increased by 10 years. These are extraordinary outcomes and one of the saddest results of this scandal is that the important work of this organization has been tarnished by the actions of its leadership.
The four top managers – who oversaw more than 300 staff – and all eight members of the organization’s board of directors left their positions last week. The four managers were earning between $120,000 and $160,000 a year, and received an additional 30 to 40 percent in remuneration for vacation pay and statutory holiday pay. This is not necessarily out of line – what rankles most are the expenses the audit uncovered, and which the senior staff felt no need to justify, including providing receipts to the auditors.
Mark Townsend, who, with his wife Liz Evans, was co-executive director of PHS, reportedly racked up high meal and travel expenditures. The auditors, KPMG, in a more-than-100-page report, noted: “The PHS declined to provide the associated credit card receipts … PHS also reiterated, among other things, their view that provision of these receipts was unnecessary to complete a proper review of these charges. We respectfully disagree.”
KPMG cited dozens of suspicious expenses, including a trip to New York City by Townsend and Evans, who stayed at the Plaza Hotel, accumulating a $9,266 bill. The purpose of trip, according to KPMG, was entirely summed up as: “Activities related to other PHS social initiatives.”
Another PHS senior staffer enjoyed a $5,832 Danube River cruise. Over three years, staff restaurant bills averaged $1,927 per month, to a total of about $69,000. An expense that resonated immediately was a trip to Disneyland for (now-former) PHS manager Dan Small, his (now-estranged) wife Jenny Kwan and their children. Kwan is the member of the B.C. legislature for the riding that encompasses the Downtown Eastside and, despite the potential for conflict of interest or misallocation, Kwan said in a teary news conference on the weekend that she had no idea that the Disneyland, and another, vacation were at least partly funded by PHS.
These incidents are doubly troubling, not just because the misallocations of funds have hurt the people they were intended to help, but because they have the potential to harm these individuals further by reinforcing the perception that money put into the Downtown Eastside is going down a hole without commensurate results. In fact, PHS has done and will continue to provide vital services that improve life for many of our city’s most disadvantaged. Our hope is that this sad situation will result in improved oversight and more scrupulous management not only of this important organization, but of all the agencies serving this area – and, frankly, all nonprofits, especially those receiving government funding.
We should also remind ourselves that these events do not grant us the right to wash our hands of events in that troubled neighborhood. The concept of anei ircha kodmin means it is a primary obligation of our tzedakah to do what we can to ameliorate suffering of the poorest in our local community. May this incident and the probable further investigations serve to rebuild our confidence in how public and private funds are spent in the Downtown Eastside so that these agencies will continue to make the changes needed for the people there.