Vancouver drug user group denied city funding for art program

Vancouver drug user group denied city funding for art program

A majority of Vancouver councillors voted to stop funding a local drug user group’s art table project on Tuesday, overturning a city staff recommendation.

The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) had received $7,500 in grants to run an art table for vulnerable drug users during the pandemic.

It saw a few events each week where Downtown Eastside residents would be led by a facilitator to learn and practice art, creating works like banners and murals commemorating people lost to toxic drugs.

However, Coun. Brian Montague of the ruling ABC Party successfully passed an amendment to the annual city grant report, denying VANDU the funding for 2023. It was the only grant, out of 84 recommended by city staff, that was not approved by the council.


“I’ve got serious concerns about the granting system and its process, and in general, I do think it’s flawed,” he said at council Tuesday. “I personally don’t have confidence that they would deliver the program and service.”

Sarah Kirby-Yung, an ABC councillor who seconded Montague’s motion, cited a previous $320,000 VANDU contract devoted to a street stewardship program as the reason she voted to cut the grant funding in 2023.

That contract was ended by the city prematurely, with officials saying the group was not focusing enough on street cleaning and devoted money to empowering residents instead.

“I think it is incumbent upon us, as stewards of public funds, that the principle of responsible use of public money is upheld,” Kirby-Yung said.

Montague’s amendments also mean that city staff will look to redirect the $7,500 in grant money to an “alternate and appropriate organization for Indigenous-led and/or Indigenous-based programming”.

VANDU exec promises to soldier on

However, VANDU had previously told CBC News it had fulfilled its commitments under the street stewardship program.

Brittany Graham, executive director of the group, said the city was playing politics and “making an example” of VANDU due to political disagreements.

“It felt very pointed when councillors were saying uninformed opinions about us using funds that were misappropriated,” she told CBC News. “We’ve never used funds from the city, or anywhere, that were not supposed to be used for the granting process.”

The three non-ABC councillors — Pete Fry, Adriane Carr and Christine Boyle — voted against Montague’s motion.

Fry noted that VANDU had done “some political things” — alluding to incidents like the group releasing video of violent police incidents and others — that made the council see them through a different lens.

Still, he said the art table was a valuable project for those affected by the poisoned drug crisis, and that art was a form of personal expression.

A series of canvases with drawings of various people.
A photo of an in-progress mural piece by Maddy Andrews made at the VANDU art table. The organization says Andrews has been working closely to memorialize people lost to toxic drugs, and the city’s funding cut would leave the project in jeopardy. (Submitted by Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users)

“I think it would be a mistake to deny this $7,500 for folks to express themselves in the midst of this disastrous overdose crisis,” he told council.

Graham said that in addition to drawn art like murals, craftsmen were also invited to the art tables to help participants — including, in a previous iteration, an Indigenous elder and knowledge keeper who taught cedar weaving.

“This money was going to Indigenous artists and would have supported Indigenous-led programming,” she said. “When people would like to work on things, we encourage them to find those spaces.

“When it’s deterred by the system because of politics? More than anything, it feels really disheartening.”

Graham said they would try to continue a version of the art table through community donations, with the group receiving support from other grant recipients like the DOXA documentary festival

A fundraiser by advocate Karen Ward had raised $9,600 for the project as of 10 a.m. PT Thursday.

“Drug users have widespread public support, because everyone uses drugs,” Ward said in an email.