4 min

Flawed consultation?

Centre challenged to start study over

Credit: Matt Mills photo

The second of two community meetings to solicit input on the feasibility of building a new queer community centre attracted about 40 people to the Aboriginal Friendship Centre near Commercial Dr, Nov 23.

That’s in stark contrast to the paltry six participants who showed up for the first meeting in the West End Nov 2, and to a very low turnout to all the focus group meetings held since the study began, Oct 12.

When a member of the audience suggested that visible minorities were underrepresented in the room, Betty Baxter, who was hired by The Centre to facilitate this first phase of consultation, told the small crowd she was disappointed with the turnout from every sector of the community.

“It’s not just people of colour who have been unrepresented, it’s been everyone who’s been unrepresented,” she said.

But several members of the audience pointed out that they hadn’t heard about the feasibility study consultation until recently and that by the time they did hear about it, it was already too late to contribute.

“I think the process has been poorly advertised in spite of their belief otherwise,” Joanne Barnes, one of those who came to give input, told Xtra West after the meeting. “It has a feeling of being put together quickly and rushed through. There is a strong commitment and dedication, but it feels like they rushed to get numbers and a report done, as opposed to getting something factual and accurate.”

Other participants pointed out that the venues for the focus groups were sometimes difficult to find, that in one case a venue door was locked, that meeting locations moved, and that the website and a listing in the last issue of Xtra West directed people to the wrong meeting locations.

Baxter says she’s baffled as to why attendance has been so low. She also says she had a difficult time connecting with business groups like the Gay and Lesbian Business Association (GLBA) and the Davie Village Business Improvement Association (DVBIA).

“We only had two people from the business community,” she told the room. “Every other focus group has identified the business community, who make their livelihoods from GLBT services, as a critical stakeholder. That’s a problem because we need corporate support. We need money from them. We don’t know if we have a buy-in from that group.”

When it was suggested that Baxter and the study steering group may not have been entirely proactive in getting people involved or may be knocking on the wrong doors, Baxter replied frankly.

“I’m going to be as diplomatic as I can,” she said. “We didn’t start as neophytes here. I didn’t just walk into the community yesterday. There was a member of the GLBA on our steering committee. We’ve been trying to have a meeting with them since the beginning of the project. We’ve been trying to have a meeting with the DVBIA since the beginning of the project.”

Although most of the two-hour meeting was consumed with discussion about the shortcomings in the feasibility study process and strategies for increasing interest from the community, participants did spend about 15 minutes completing written surveys. Baxter says her initial impressions of the results are varied, but she does say there are some consistent themes. “Bright, warm, clean, friendly, welcoming, accessible; these are the adjectives everyone uses. That’s come through from every single group.”

And the consensus by the end of the discussion seemed to be that this meeting of 40 people showed that momentum for the project was beginning to build. A couple of people suggested that The Centre turn back the clock on the feasibility study so people who missed earlier opportunities to participate would get another chance.

“I think they need to go back to square one and start the study again,” says Barnes. “It needs to be better advertised and there needs to be more time put into it.”

But neither The Centre’s board chair, Craig Maynard, nor its executive director, Donna Wilson, is willing to commit to extending the consultation period at this stage.

Maynard says the timeframe is a condition of the city’s grant and points out that, although the focus groups are over, the survey is available online until Dec 16.

Wilson says the steering group will meet on Dec 11 and that the board of The Centre will meet a few days after that. She says they will need to sift through all the material and decide what the next course of action will be.

“We’ve got to have some discussion and work out how best to keep the momentum going,” Wilson told Xtra West. “I think people are offering themselves, their skills and energy. We need to look at how that’s going to move forward.”

“There were a number of voices we heard that said there needs to be more consultation and this won’t be enough,” says Maynard. “There may be credibility issues with the report. There is some speculation by some individuals that have fears there are not enough voices. All those things were heard.

“Everyone had their own suggestions, but there was buy-in,” he continued. “I don’t think you can spin that; it just happens. There was some detailed examination of shortcomings as far as turnout goes, but I think we have the beginning of a credible process.”

A few days after the Nov 23 meeting, The Centre booked a full-page version of the feasibility study survey to run in this issue of Xtra West (see page 24).

The Centre’s current digs at the corner of Bute and Davie Sts are dilapidated, unsuitable, and accessible only via a steep and narrow staircase.

In March of 2005, Vancouver city council set aside as much as $100,000 to spur the feasibility study project forward. But while the civic election loomed, the city waited for The Centre to submit a proposal for how the money would be spent; the proposal never came.

On Apr 7, after the NPA won control in the election and members of the queer community turned out in force to convince council to support the idea, the city awarded a $35,000 grant for the study. The Centre contributed $10,000 to the project; all the money it had in its building fund.

Virtually nothing happened publicly between April and Sep 21, when The Centre announced the current series of focus groups and town hall meetings were set to commence just three weeks later.