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British Columbia Word Vancouver turns the page after staff turnover, financial troubles

It seemed improbable in early summer, but authors and readers will gather this Sunday at tables and in tents outside the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch for Word Vancouver.

The annual free literary festival, formerly Word on the Street Vancouver, dates back to 1995, but this year’s event came close to being cancelled – there was even a statement prepared – after a flurry of activity in June: the resignation of its new executive director, her staff and more than half the board. The resignations followed serious concerns raised by the incoming leadership around Word Vancouver’s financial state.

Three board members stayed on, including the chair. After an in-depth analysis of its financial situation conducted by an independent accountant, they decided that the show could go on.

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“We were operating in a deficit but we saw that it was surmountable,” Word board chair Mary-Ann Yazedjian says. “We felt that we could move ahead with the festival and really put on a great festival, which is what we’re managing to do,” she adds. “And everybody’s going to get paid.”

The others who departed have concerns about the organization’s viability.

Vancouver author Chelene Knight was named Word Vancouver’s executive director in the spring. She hired a team to work with her, including Meghan Bell, who joined as part-time development director. The two women also work together at Room, a feminist magazine. Ms. Knight, a single mother who describes herself as living month to month, gave up her job with the Vancouver Public Library to take the Word position.

There were red flags almost immediately. Ms. Knight says she had trouble getting adequate handover information in a timely manner.

When she did receive access to the organization’s financial information, she was shocked. “I still have nightmares about it,” Ms. Knight said.

The organization’s main bank account was nearly $19,000 overdrawn, but exhibitor fees, advertising revenue and several grants had already been deposited for the 2018 festival, according to Ms. Bell. And none of the expenses directly related to the festival had been paid – with the exception of year-round salaries and items such as rent, storage and office supplies.

Outgoing director Bryan Pike, who has been with the festival since 1998, says there was certainly revenue coming in to cover the organization through the festival, and this was the typical annual cycle. “Most of the money was not in yet.”

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But Ms. Knight and Ms. Bell also found what they term as inconsistencies in grant applications and other sloppiness around finances. There were GST payments owing; the remainder of the invoices owing were payable to Rebus Creative, the company Mr. Pike owns. But because the accounts hadn’t been reconciled since November, it was unclear whether that was up-to-date and accurate. (Rebus also runs the BC Book Prizes.)

Mr. Pike, who is no longer with the festival, says nothing was amiss, and the state of the books was no different from any other year – and no secret. “We were certainly into the line of credit but that was common knowledge and that’s separate from the cash flow,” he says. The line of credit was about $20,000. He also points out that a small surplus was posted for the last fiscal year.

Days after seeing the books, Ms. Knight and Ms. Bell resigned.

First, they sent pointed questions to Mr. Pike and the board.

“When I started reading the documentation I was aghast,” says Robin Rivers, a board member who resigned. “We never had any indication that we had problems with the books. That said … the board did not dive deep into the finances,” she adds. “Now should we have? Yes, obviously.”

Shazia Hafiz Ramji also resigned. “The board had been misled … about the finances.”

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With an annual budget of about $225,000, the festival receives funding from all levels of government. Funding from the BC Arts Council, however, dropped from a $15,000 operating grant to a $5,000 project grant this year, after two years of warnings that the organization was not meeting the required standards.

The remaining board members considered mounting a smaller program this year. In the end, they went with a full slate of activities.

Still, these events have caused divisions, and some have chosen not to participate, including the Magazine Association of B.C.

Ms. Ramji was invited to read at Word – her debut book of poetry is being published this fall – but declined.

After Word wraps up Sunday, Ms. Knight and Ms. Bell, through Room, are hosting their own free program of readings that evening. They’re calling it AfterWord.

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