Union organizers and locked-out Rocky Mountaineer workers were hoping for a poor turnout at the Vancouver International Film Festival opening gala – held behind picket lines at Rocky Mountaineer Station Thursday night. But while attendance appeared to be down from previous years, there were still hundreds of people who crossed the picket line to attend the swish affair, sipping Chardonnay, downing import beer, dancing and schmoozing while about 30 locked-out train attendants picketed outside.
"It makes me feel disappointed because a lot of them are in unions as well," said one of the 108 train attendants who have been locked-out since June 22. The woman identified herself as Lleilah, and a former VIFF volunteer. "The [festival's]theme this year is revolution and empowerment and it's a little ironic and contradictory," she said.
Festival organizers decided on Thursday to go ahead with the opening party, despite the fact the venue was involved in a labour dispute, and would force guests to cross a picket line to get inside.
"At times today, we seemed convinced that the best course of action would be to cancel the reception entirely and we know, understand and appreciate that some of you will elect not to attend the reception," board chair Michael Francis told the audience at the opening screening earlier Thursday evening at the Vogue Theatre. "However the majority of stakeholders and VIFF supporters are encouraging us not to cancel this once-a-year event on our 30th anniversary."
The decision to go ahead with the party was upsetting to B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair.
"I was crossing my fingers that they'd realize this is a black mark for British Columbia, for the industry," he said outside the Vogue. "It puts people at this festival in a terrible position."
Mr. Sinclair noted that many film workers belong to unions.
"This industry is a union industry. So to hold this thing behind the picket line is an insult to the people that work for a living in this industry and it's a shame."
As a steady stream of cars crossed the picket line into the party Thursday night, some pickets yelled at the drivers and passengers.
"You don't have to go in, you know!"
And, addressing a group of women who were giggling as they drove past: "It's not funny when you can't pay your mortgage!"
Mr. Sinclair said he was "annoyed" by all the cars going in. "It's disgraceful, people crossing the picket line. There's nothing decent about it at all."
The odd car turned around – earning enthusiastic cheers from the pickets – and several taxis refused to cross, unloading their passengers, who then had to walk across the picket line to the party.
"I've seen people I know cross the line," said Dusty Kelly with IATSE local 891, one of five unions – including the Directors Guild of Canada and the Union of BC Performers – that issued a statement on Thursday urging members not to attend the party.
Mr. Francis said he had personally been unaware of the labour dispute, as had other festival officials, until a VIFF employee received a call on Tuesday from a politician saying he would not be able to attend because of the labour issue.
"We told the politician he was wrong. He was misinformed," said Mr. Francis. "There was no picket line."
But B.C. NDP MLA and culture critic Spencer Chandra Herbert told VIFF a week ago Tuesday that he wouldn't attend the gala because of the lock-out, according to a tweet he sent out Thursday evening.
A statement issued by VIFF on Thursday said "VIFF board and senior management were not informed until late [Wednesday]that a picket line will be ... put in place on the perimeter of that venue this evening."
In any case, Mr. Sinclair says festival organizers should have been aware of the situation. "It's a shame for the city. This is a big event for the city. They shouldn't have been here. They knew better. They knew there was a labour dispute," he said. "They just didn't think it was going to be an issue, for some reason."