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BC government freezes, then unfreezes, promised gaming funds to community groups

Queer organizations angry about province's secrecy, lack of consultation

Some organizations are seeking legal counsel while other queer art and culture groups are demanding answers following the provincial government’s decision to freeze millions of dollars in gaming and lottery charity grants last month. And while the freeze has since been lifted, groups relying on the annual funds remain in a state of financial uncertainty.

“It’s particularly frustrating that there hasn’t been any direct communication [from the government],” says Drew Dennis, executive director of Out On Screen (OOS). Dennis says OOS applied “well within the deadline” for a grant to assist the queer community arts organization and is still waiting to be notified about the status of the application.

Direct Access grants, accumulated from gaming and lottery revenue and handed out by the Ministry of Housing and Social Development, are generally distributed late spring. This year, however, some arts, culture and sporting organizations have been kept in the dark regarding the status of their funding applications after the Campbell government called an impromptu review of the $156 million in gaming revenue. Nearly 7,000 non-profit organizations province-wide are affected.

The president of the BC Association of Charitable Gaming (BCACG), an organization that represents BC charities that receive gaming funds, says the government’s lack of communication and consultation regarding these grants is inexcusable. As a result, the organization has announced it’s consulting with a lawyer to pursue possible legal action against the province.

“We are currently researching the legal ramifications of the government’s decisions to freeze committed funds,” says Susan Marsden. “There has been a profoundly disrespectful attitude bordering on disdain on the part of the government of British Columbia vis-à-vis the 6,000 charities across the province who provide a wide range of services to hundreds of thousands of BC citizens,” she says.

The BCACG says they are looking into legal action for the government’s alleged breach of a 1999 Memorandum Agreement with the organization. The agreement indicates that the government had agreed to consultation with the BCACG and charity groups pending changes in the policy affecting distribution of the grants.

Furthermore, Marsden estimates the province will distribute far less than the 33 percent promised from gaming revenue — a commitment also made in the agreement, she notes.

“With nearly $2 billion in government gaming revenues for 2008, the unfreezing of $159 million of that amounts to only 7.95 percent, a far cry from the 33 percent [of the] original commitment,” she says.

“The failure of the government to consider its moral and possibly legal obligations, its failure to inform charities beforehand [and] its refusal to provide information… all show that this government has forgotten, or is ignoring, the basic responsibilities of a democratic government,” Marsden adds. “If the government is calculating that hundreds of thousands of people volunteering and working in charities and benefiting from their services will forget about its attitude and actions, then they have clearly lost touch with their constituents,” she says.

The Minister of Housing and Social Development was unavailable for comment but a sent a statement. “Like other jurisdictions, we are facing unprecedented economic times that require some difficult decisions,” the Ministry said in the statement. “Our review is complete and the freeze on gaming grants has ended,” it stated. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to help building strong communities through community gaming grants [however] as in previous years, the demand for community gaming grants significantly exceeds available funding,” the statement said.

The province recently conducted a review regarding the distribution of funding to the “highest priority organizations.” Organizations set to receive grants for 2009-10 year include programs that assist low-income individuals and people with disabilities, community health service providers, public safety and education programs and certain recreation facilities, to name a few. Also, a “limited number of arts and culture activities,” will receive funding, the statement said.

For arts organizations this announcement is surprising, considering the government’s own figures show that for every dollar invested in the arts they get $1.36 back in the form of taxes.

Meanwhile, the 2009-10 Direct Access grant applicants for arts, culture and sport will be notified of their funding status by the middle of September, the ministry states. “Some groups will receive less funding than requested to assist a larger number of organizations receiving the gaming grant,” the ministry further states.

Groups that won’t receive funding this year are capital project and playground grants, as well as those applying for three-year grants.

The Georgia Straight newspaper reported that the province had already promised the Le Centre Culturel Francophone de Vancouver, a non-profit French community centre, that they could count on $40,000 annually over the next three years. Now the non-profit organization is reportedly saying it may pursue a class action suit against the Campbell government if their grant approval is not honoured. Calls to the centre spokesperson were not returned by press time.

“This freeze in funding is an absolute concern,” says Dennis. “But our main concern is the government’s overall lack of investment in the arts,” Dennis adds.

“As queers, so much of our identity and community has been built around arts and culture,” Dennis continues. “ So much of our identity has been developed and articulated through it.”

“I can’t say we are relying on it,” says Ken Coolen. “We will survive [without the grant]” he adds. But the Vancouver Pride Society president says additional funds would allow for more financial freedom to generate queer events.

Coolen, who is a first-time applicant for the gaming grant, says he is most frustrated with the shroud of secrecy surrounding the freeze and consequent grant review. “There was nothing ever officially said as to why they put the freeze on the grants,” he says.

Calling the freeze lift a response to an “avalanche of anger in the province,” gay NDP MLA Spencer Herbert says he’s concerned about the long term consequences of funding cuts to community arts and culture organizations. “When cultural institutions take this kind of hit from the government, you see fewer people being heard and the cultural diversity of a community not being showcased,” he says.