3 min

What happened to Harding?

Imagine my surprise when I returned from several weeks away to find The Centre had canned its brand new executive director.

The same executive director they’d been so keen to hire just seven months earlier.

What went wrong?

Craig Maynard, co-chair of The Centre’s board of directors, is deliberately vague. “I can’t go into that,” he tells me Feb 19. “The reasons behind anyone’s activities at The Centre, whether volunteer or paid staff, are not discussed publicly.”

Compare that to the interview he gave Xtra West last June in anticipation of Michael Harding’s contributions to The Centre. Back then he highlighted Harding’s fundraising experience and his “background in social programming and community development.”

Fast-forward a few months. “It was determined by the board that Michael was not the best fit for The Centre and the delivery of our programs and services,” says Harding’s interim replacement, Jennifer Breakspear.

Hmm. Could it be that Harding dared to look beyond The Centre’s status quo, beyond its usual stock programs and services, to contemplate something greater than the sum of its lacklustre parts?

I ask Maynard if Harding was moving too fast for the board. “I wouldn’t even hazard to wander into any of this discussion,” he replies. “It’s just not appropriate.”

Fine. Then let me tell you what I think happened behind the scenes.

I think the new guy walked in with a radical idea: a vision of a queer community centre that does more than provide programs and support services to a handful of community members.

A community centre that celebrates who we are, that inspires us to come together and offers us a variety of ways to connect with each other. Something like a year-round queer film festival that goes beyond films to keep the energy of connection alive all the time.

I’m not knocking The Centre’s existing programs. Coming out groups, support groups — those are all essential to the people who use them and I’m not for a moment suggesting they be disbanded.

I’m just saying very few people seem to use our community centre right now. Fewer still seem to think it’s relevant to their lives. I know I don’t.

The Centre lacks vision, says gay men’s health activist Phillip Banks. Its board of directors is so focused on the need to serve the most marginalized members of our community that it has lost sight of the need to reach out to the rest of us.

“There is a leadership problem at The Centre,” Banks says. “Is the current board attracting the kind of people who can not only maintain the status quo but take it to a new level?”

I think they attracted just such a person — so they fired him.

Granted, I’ve only met Harding a handful of times and I barely know the man. But I sense that he was up to something big in his brief tenure at The Centre. I sense that he was seriously trying to find us a new site for a brand new Centre — two things long overdue.

Maynard disputes my lack of leadership suggestion. “We provide a number of programs that a lot of people would say are leading and pioneering,” he says, pointing to Gab youth services and the Generations Project.

Again with the programs. I agree: Gab and the Generations Project are both innovative and essential. But it’s time to look beyond the programs and contemplate something more. What else can our community centre be?

Maynard also points to the 2006 community consultation as evidence that queers still engage with The Centre. I see it as further evidence that The Centre is irrelevant to too many of us.

Though the consultation eventually got hundreds of responses online, its public meetings were abysmally attended. What is wrong with our Centre that so few people cared enough to come out and re-envision it as a group?

You have to give people reason to get excited, Banks says. “People are rarely excited by the status quo.”

Maynard says The Centre is actually about to rebrand itself with “a new name and a louder version of what our vision and mission is.” Not a new vision, just a new spin to make “us more current and relevant” and “improve our ability to communicate.”

It’s going to take more than a name change, Craig.