On Difficult and Necessary Conversations: An Update on Powell Street Festival Fall Programming

This is a new kind of update, for Powell Street Festival Society (PSFS). It is shaped by the increasingly volatile times through which we are living. We summarize the ‘takeaways’ of our update in the paragraph below, but encourage you to read our full message. It is the full message—and not just the paragraph below—through which we aim to model, invite, and open ourselves to difficult but, we believe, necessary conversations. 

The long and the short of our update is this: public conversations which we anticipated inviting you to—specifically, a conversation hosted in partnership with Chutzpah! Festival for their FORGE program—will not be happening. Instead, we are inviting you to a different event: Visioning Paueru Gai: Public Spaces in the Powell Street Neighbourhood. Scheduled to take place on Saturday, November 25th from 10AM–4PM at the Vancouver Buddhist Temple (220 Jackson Avenue), Visioning Paueru Gai is a public conversation and an opportunity for us to think collectively about memorialization in our historic neighbourhood, today known as the Downtown Eastside (DTES). 

We want to share our journey with you—because the story of how we moved away from Chutzpah! Festival’s FORGE programming is a part of how we grapple with complex narratives as a means of fulfilling our mandate to activate arts and culture to bridge communities.  


The Journey Thus Far 

In spring 2022, PSFS helped composer Rita Ueda secure funding for the creative development of her chamber opera, I Have My Mothers Eyes. A powerful libretto, I Have My Mother’s Eyes tells the story of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who risked his own life to issue visas to Jewish families during the Holocaust, including Vancouver’s Bluman family, and brought thousands to safety. Ueda’s opera is directed by Heather Pawsey and features mezzo soprano Barbara Ebbeson (Zosia/Barbara/Danielle Bluman) as well as soprano Teiya Kasahara (Chiune/Yukiko/Hiroki/Madoka Sugihara). 

Through Ueda’s efforts, I Have My Mother’s Eyes became a part of the Chutzpah! Festival. PSFS is now a proud partner of the opera’s premiere, which is scheduled to take place as a part of Chutzpah! Festival on November 18th and 19th. 

It was through Ueda’s work for I Have My Mother’s Eyes that PSFS was first introduced to Chutzpah! Festival. Following that introduction, Chutzpah! Festival approached PSFS about supporting another part of their programming: FORGE. 

FORGE is a multi-day performance piece by Jewish, Queer, UK artist Rachel Mars, in which Mars will build and rebuild a replica of the gate installed at Dachau as a means to consider places of trauma and how they are memorialized. Mars’ building and rebuilding of this replica gate is accompanied by a soundscape drawn from her surroundings and resonant locations from around the world. 

Of course, FORGE is an artistic response to a very specific history of extermination—and, in the face of that extermination, Jewish survival—in relation to Dachau. As a Japanese Canadian organization, PSFS does not share a connection to that specific history. However, as an organization borne out of experiences of state violence and community resistance, FORGE’s overarching themes resonate with PSFS and our ties to the DTES.  

To deepen and bring local perspectives to FORGE public programs, we have been working with Chutzpah! Festival to share our experience in trauma-informed community engagement. We introduced Japanese Canadian artist Ayumi Goto and Indigenous artist Peter Morin to Rachel Mars in anticipation of a dialogue about decolonizing artistic practices. And we planned a sharing circle in the DTES to exchange ideas about loss of home and ways of memorializing without perpetuating acts of violence, erasure or displacement.  


Difficult Conversations 

Current events—namely, the Israel-Hamas War, in which innumerable Palestinian and Jewish lives have been lost, and which has caused immeasurable suffering, both on-the-ground in Gaza, the West Bank, Palestine, and Israel as well as across multiple diasporas—have fundamentally changed the political, ethical, and psychic landscape in which PSFS’ collaboration with FORGE was originally scheduled to take place. 

We have pivoted and will not move forward with the public events. 

This was not a hasty decision, nor do we take lightly our responsibility to be transparent with you, the Powell Street Festival community, about how we arrived here. 

For the better part of October, PSFS board members, staff, and volunteers have been discussing the rapidly evolving Israel-Hamas War. We have seriously considered how our actions in Vancouver might have an impact—positively, negatively, or otherwise.  And, we are keenly aware that some of our own community members are bound up in this still unfolding, volatile situation. We have sought—and seek, now—to slow down, to listen to one another, and to respond accordingly. 


Taking Action: Care, Relationships, and Transparency 

On Wednesday, October 25th, the PSFS Board of Directors gathered for our monthly meeting. Much of the discussion revolved around how to navigate our scheduled programming amidst newly unfolding current events. The PSFS Board arrived at three interrelated guiding commitments: 

1) To care for artists. 

We appreciate that in such volatile times, artists are frequently among the first to render themselves vulnerable—not just through their creative practice(s), but often through on-the-ground organizing and activism—to all kinds of difficulty, from physical danger to psychic trauma. As such, we reached out to the artists involved in the Chutzpah! Festival via PSFS. We also considered the ongoing displacement and myriad forms of violence taking place in Paueru Gai and the Downtown Eastside.  

2) To fulfill our mandate not just at our events, but through our relationships. 

Many of us tend to think of celebrating Japanese Canadian art and culture as something that happens at Powell Street Festival itself, and/or through other PSFS programming—including public conversations like the one we had planned to host in partnership with Chutzpah! Festival for FORGE. However, we have recently been reflecting on what it means to celebrate Japanese Canadian art and culture. Specifically, we have come to an understanding of celebration as something that happens not just at our programs, but through the work of developing our programs and tending to our everyday relationships. Our many conversations and careful listening to one another, including with Jessica Mann Gutteridge, Artistic Managing Director of Chutzpah! Festival, are in fact a fulfillment of our mandate to bridge community through art and culture.   

3) To be transparent about our actions and decisions. 

As an organization, PSFS is accustomed to navigating a complex network of overlapping claims to home (that is, those claims to home which shape Paueru Gai and the Downtown Eastside). The ever-changing and increasingly volatile political, social, and emotional landscapes of which we are a part require new levels of care, of tenderness in our relationships, and indeed of transparency. Our pivot from Chutzpah! Festival’s FORGE programming is an intentional action to support human rights—of both Jewish and Palestinian people. We are respecting the sensitivity of the issues and timing which require making space for the complexities of trauma and more groundwork before public programs can be offered. 

Ultimately, we call for a ceasefire, accountability for war crimes, as well as the delivery of basic human necessities (such as water, food, electricity, medicine, and healthcare) to all, including Palestinians in Gaza, nearly half of whom are children, whose rights—as both humans and children (see United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child)—are being doubly violated. 

We thank our community members for taking the time to read our update. We hope that we have been able to illustrate not only our commitment to celebrating the arts, but also to humanity.    


Powell Street Festival Society