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Mayor to sit down with Abbotsford’s unhappy cultural organizations

Groups unhappy with consultation on new cultural plan
Abbotsford City Hall.

The leaders of several prominent cultural organizations will be invited to meet with city staff and Mayor Henry Braun after sharply criticizing a report that aimed to set the stage for a new cultural strategy for Abbotsford.

City staff have started work on a new Cultural Strategic Plan, one of a myriad of new plans the city has worked on the last five years. That project aims to shape how the city will try to develop Abbotsford’s cultural institutions and assets over the next 20 years.

The start of each new plan by the city has seen staff create a detailed report summing up the current state of the topic in question. But the State of Culture Report delivered to council and the city’s cultural committee in February prompted several major cultural groups to write to the city to object to the process and some of the findings of the report.

Those groups include mainstays like The Reach Gallery Museum, Gallery 7 Theatre and Performing Arts, CIVL Radio, and the Abbotsford Arts Council.

In a long letter to the city that was co-signed by several other organizations, the Arts Council said February’s report failed to stress the need for more cultural infrastructure. The letter spoke of two decades of frustration.

“Many have said they have participated in a plethora of discussions over the last 20-plus years and ‘nothing has ever come of it.’”

The organization said the first phase of work had resulted in the sense that “the status quo will be maintained.”

Ken Hildebrandt, the executive director of Gallery 7 Theatre, wrote that his group had participated in one round-table workshop, and then received no further invitations for consultation. He said the report suggested “the City had already pre-determined the outcomes it desires from the consultation process.”

And Milt Walker, the chair of The Reach Gallery Museum’s board of directors, wrote that “we are concerned that the incomplete process and resulting information in the State of Culture Report will continue to shape the outcome of the final strategy if the issues we raise are not addressed.”

Most took issue with the idea that there should be “less reliance on physical infrastructure,” pointing to an existing deficit in cultural facilities in Abbotsford.

But the groups also urged the city to return to major stakeholders for more discussions.

Staff presented a new report to council Monday, with feedback from residents and stakeholders – including the critical letters appended.

The backlash prompted Braun to declare that the work on the new plan should be paused to allow time to hear more from the cultural organizations.

He said he didn’t agree with much of the criticism, and noted that much seems to be the result of actions – or lack thereof – of previous councils over the last 20 years. But he said the present impasse needs to be fixed.

“We need to resolve this. And maybe it will never be resolved to others’ satisfaction 100 per cent, but if these organizations are pushing back against us, that’s not going to help us in trying to move this forward,” he said.

Members of council suggested they were receptive to hearing more feedback.

“I’m hopeful that if there are hard feelings from the past, now’s the time to be heard,” said Coun. Bruce Banman (who has not yet assumed his role as a Member of the Legislature). “We want to hear those voices. There’s not much point in rehashing everything that’s happened in the past. However we can learn from the mistakes of the past as the culture of this city becomes more inclusive.”

And Coun. Dave Loewen said the groups had a point when they suggested that Abbotsford was in need of more cultural facilities.

“Historically, this municipality has spent much less per capita than other jurisdictions have and just as important as economic and physical infrastructure, there’s such a thing as social infrastructure. Perhaps we need to steel our minds to that conversation when we do budgeting coming up.

“Perhaps we’re guilty of deferring the commitment of funds to that part of infrastructure in our city. And this ... could be part of the reason why we have some segments of our community that are very unhappy. They’re feeling that they’ve been held back by financial constraints, that we don’t put financial resources into something that is really important to them. We’re accountable for the fact that not more resources have been put into social infrastructure over the last 15, 20 years.”

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