6 min

Gay fest faces discrimination in funding

City hall turns its back on Pride

FREE SERVICES NEEDED. Pride VP Darren Fisher, says the festival needs city funding. Credit: (Erik Faure)

As Ottawa’s Pride Committee hangs onto a ledge by its fingertips, city hall just stands by and watches.

Ottawa lags far behind other cities in contributions to its premier annual gay culture event and second-largest yearly parade, even while other Ottawa festivals have received far more money from the city.

The result is endangering the long-term survival of the Pride festival – and that loss would have major economic, cultural and political consequences for this city.

Today, Pride sits with a $120,000 debt after three bad years of fundraising and overspending. It owes money to local businesses, community groups and city hall. And the latter debt makes the Pride festivities ineligible for even the miniscule grants that city hall has handed out in past years with one hand, even while it’s billed back huge policing, street closure and cleanup costs with the other hand.

Not that city hall has done nothing for Pride. Pride board members say they’re very thankful for the $50,000 loan guarantee the city extends them. It’s allowed them to continue putting on festivals even as the debt increased. And it’s bought them much-needed time to pay off the debt, and ensured the space to negotiate with their bank and creditors. The Pride committee is now negotiating with creditors about a three-year plan to pay them back for past debts.

“We’re stuck in the log jam of being a festival that hasn’t honoured their agreement for three years,” says Darren Fisher, vice-chair of Pride Ottawa. “Our biggest concern is keeping the bank happy by making sure that the community people that are owed money are paid. We really want to work with them to work out the plan.”

The $120,000 deficit breaks down as follows: repaying the loan of $50,000 from the bank, and the remainder to creditors, from small businesses to local musicians. And $10,000 to the city for past services, including policing and street closures. The debt has swelled over the past three years because of changing organizers, management issues, the costly street party and free parade floats.

City hall gave the committee a grant of $4,000 in 2002 and $3,000 in 2003, but nothing in 2004.

However, until Pride clears up its debt, it is not eligible to apply for even those tiny grants.

“We were told not to submit our grant [application] because we owed [the city] money,” says Fisher. “Currently, we get no money from the city.”

“We’re just guaranteeing their loan with the bank,” confirms city councillor Diane Holmes of Ward 14-Somerset. “As long as they pay the bank back, the city doesn’t get involved.”

Ottawa Pride is not the only local festival with a debt. At the media launch for Pride 2005 on Jun 9, Holmes told the audience that when city staff told her they were reluctant to continue working with the Pride committee because it owed money, she asked what other festivals and cultural events also owe city hall.

“Surprise, surprise,” she said. “Other festivals all owe money. So this is one of many.”

City Council approved a $75,900 line of credit in February, 2003 for the Canadian Tulip Festival, for example, on the condition that they would not have to repay it by deadline but would be ineligible for future funding. While the Tulip Festival has paid part of the debt, they will be ineligible for city grants until they repay it in full.

And while in a good year gays and lesbians get $3,000 in donations from city hall for their festival, other festivities and communities fare much better. In 2004, the city gave the following funding to local, high-profile festivals: $44,000 to the Ottawa Bluesfest, $72,000 to the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, $35,000 to the Ottawa Folk Festival and $6,000 to the Ottawa Dragon Boat Race Festival.

In Montreal, the annual Pride festivities, Divers/Cité, receive $25,000 in funding from the city of Montreal, $100,000 from the provincial Tourism Ministry and $100,000 from Economic Development Canada, which is solely used for promoting Divers/Cité outside of Canada. The rest of their funding comes from sources such as beer sales and sponsorship.

Toronto Pride, on the other hand, pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy back in 1996.

“They had huge debts and they weren’t able to manage,” says Toronto Pride executive director Frank Chester. “In fact, the organization around that time was reincorporated – there was a total break-down. It has not been a rosy ride. It’s not as though we’re different or better than any other Pride. We’re not.”

Toronto Pride now operates with an annual budget of $1 million, with an accumulated surplus of $250,000. Chester says the reasons for the turnaround include allies at city hall, such as Toronto city councillor Kyle Rae, and successful grant applications, including $15,000 from the Toronto Arts Council and $3,000 from Access And Equity for sensitivity training for board members and staff. Moreover, Toronto Pride receives a third of its funding from different levels of government, a third from corporate sponsorship and a third from site fees, parade fees and beverage sales. While the board has approved sound budgets in the past, this year they passed a deficit budget to use some of their accumulated funds for Toronto Pride’s 25th anniversary.

Toronto Pride will also receive $100,000 in municipal funding this year from the city of Toronto’s economic development and culture division’s community partnership and investment program, an eyebrow-raising amount compared to the amounts it has received in previous years.

“We’ve never received this kind of money before,” says Chester.

But it doesn’t end there.

Toronto Pride is also not billed by the city of Toronto for garbage collection, barricades or the lion’s share of police services. That’s because of a budget rule passed in 1999 that decided these kinds of fees would not be charged to Pride Toronto and numerous other major festivals.

An economic impact study performed in 2003 by Special Events Ontario and the Ontario Ministry Of Tourism And Recreation for 25 different events says that the average visitor spent $503 at Toronto Pride, and that the overall economic impact of 2003’s Toronto Pride was $57,797,000.

Other Canadian cities such as Vancouver also support their pride festivals.

Vancouver city councillor Ellen Woodsworth says that Vancouver Pride was the first recipient of the city services part of the Celebration Grants Program, created in spring 2003. The city of Vancouver program supports parades both through cash grants and services – up to 50 percent of the cost of city services.

“Except for the first year, the Vancouver Pride Society has always requested and received the maximum amount available,” says Woodsworth.

Since 2003, the Society has requested a total of $49,500 in services and cash grants and received $44,283.

Chicago Pride, meanwhile, receives free police protection services and free barrels for garbage. Richard Pfeiffer, Chicago Pride’s parade coordinator, says most of Chicago Pride’s income comes from parade floats and the 400,000 participants they had last year. Non-profit groups pay $150 for floats, local businesses pay $350 and corporations pay from $550 to $600.

Ottawa appears to have a lot of catching up to do. But Holmes holds out some hope.

When asked if the city of Ottawa would give Pride $50,000 each year, she replies, “It’s highly possible – they would have to ask for the money as an annual grant.”

When asked if the city should cover service costs, Holmes referred to a June 9 report that will examine the issue. “Should we not give out grants and cover our internal costs or continue to give grants and claw back?” Holmes asks.

Fisher of the Pride Committee says his group would rather have free services than cash.

Despite repeated requests from Capital Xtra for an exact figure of how much the city charged Ottawa Pride last year, the city’s media relations officer, Eric Collard, only provided average costs for services and suggested the paper use the Access To Information Act to get specifics.

Meanwhile, Pride’s slashing costs this year to just try and survive.

To cut costs, Pride has moved the street party off Bank St (which cost about $30,000 to $35,000) to the Festival Plaza (which will run about $10,000 to $15,000). The committee did not have figures for the cost of the parade at press time. Unlike in the past two years, groups that enter floats will pay on a sliding scale this year to make the parade pay for itself, like the Pride parades in other cities. As of press deadline, the Pride committee had yet to meet with the city to confirm the parade route.

Fisher estimates that 35,000 people attended last year’s Ottawa Pride. Despite the weight of its financial problems, Fisher is hoping that 35,000 to 45,000 people attend this year.

Holmes wonders if part of Pride’s challenge may be internal reform.

“It seems to be that there’s a new group organizing Pride every year,” says Holmes. “There could be some continuity with the people who have the experience… who know the ropes.”

Ottawa Pride Committee board members now have two-year terms, and either four or six of these positions will be up for election halfway through.

However, the committee currently has only eight members for its 10-position board.

Regardless of who is running Pride, it remains the premier annual expression of gay culture in Ottawa’s calendar. It’s a vital festival for the gay community and tremendously important for building a tourism base in Ottawa. For those reasons alone, other cities give substantial subsidies to their Pride festivals. For its part, Ottawa’s committee is left begging for pennies from the gay community.

“Pride is the largest cultural event of our community,” vital to gay and lesbian tourism, says Fisher. “You have people from small towns who don’t have opportunities to go anywhere. If each person gave the equivalent of one beer, we’d be out of debt in one year.”