6 Edmonton arts scandals of 2017
There hasn’t been a year like this for controversy in the Edmonton arts and entertainment scene since, well … ever.
Here are six unpleasant stories that riled people up in 2017:
1. The Needle and the Damage Done
One of Edmonton’s premiere live music venues came crashing down barely 24 hours after an employee accused one of the owners of sexual harassment.
The alleged incident at the Needle Vinyl Tavern happened in March. The victim didn’t report it because she says she loved her job, but lost her temper eight months later after the three owners announced plans to hire a man known to her and other staff for allegedly sexually harassing servers in the past. The woman says she quit when her concerns weren’t addressed. Then she spilled her guts on Facebook – and the post went viral.
It was social media that killed the room. As mainstream media scrambled to catch the story, with possible police or legal action trailing behind, the music community staged a boycott. Pretty much all the acts cancelled their shows. For a venue that sells itself on running live music seven days a week, it was devastating. The owners fumbled with three versions of an apology on Facebook, the last promising that the allegedly offending owner would be removed from his ownership position – which maybe should’ve been done in the first place. They also said other Needle employees had been threatened in the wake of the scandal, and that the bar would be closed “indefinitely.”
The plot thickens: A day or so later, anonymous posters appeared in the streets claiming Edmonton had been “fooled,” and that the allegedly victimized employee was motivated by “revenge over a failed mutiny” – what are we, at sea? The poster claimed she’d been fired from a previous job by the aforementioned prospective new Needle hire for smoking drugs on the job. And so what if she did? Like the apologies, this information was too little, too late, and also anonymous. Besides, getting high at work (allegedly) doesn’t change the fact that she was sexually harassed, that the alleged perpetrator admitted it, tried to apologize, and that she’d held it in until she quit.
“This is far too rampant and I’m fucking tired of it,” she told GigCity in a phone interview. By the time our story was published, the club was closed.
It’s weird how in all the media stories, the name of the accuser was made prominent while the alleged perpetrator was left anonymous. The word “allegedly” needs to be banned.
At the end of this ugly debacle, several smart observers pointed out that despite the loss of a once great live music venue – and about 80 people losing their jobs – this is a healthy development toward creating safe workplaces in the Edmonton hospitality industry – a business that until now was said to be complicit in letting certain slimeball club owners get away with sexual harassment. Not anymore!
2. David Belke goes to jail
In a heartbreaking and shocking story, one of Edmonton’s most beloved playwrights and teachers was convicted of possession of child pornography and sentenced in November to the mandatory minimum of six months in prison. David Belke was caught when he unwittingly took his computer in for repair and the tech discovered images of naked girls, many in a “naturalist” setting.
Paula Simons from the Edmonton Journal wrote a spirited defense of the man, which prompted a vociferous response from Dr. John Wiens, director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. It’s clear there are people in the local theatre community who want nothing to do with Belke anymore.
Is there is any hope that after he’s done his time, he could be welcomed back into the theatre community that once nurtured him? Can there ever be forgiveness?
3. Peter North quits CKUA
Radio stations make changes all the time – but CKUA is no ordinary radio station. It’s an Alberta institution. Some of its announcers have been around long enough to qualify as historical landmarks. You fuck with these guys at your peril. So it was with great shock and horror that one of our major founts of roots music expertise got so pissed off about decisions made by the new lieutenants at CKUA that he quit. Peter North says he was “elbowed out,” and presents specific evidence. Maybe time to move on anyway. He said it himself: “I don’t think any show should be done for the rest of your life.” The mystery is that Peter’s shows were still resonating with audiences, he says, and still bringing in money. “It didn’t make much sense.”
Perhaps CKUA is trying to carefully modernize its audience, and that the “old folkies network” is long overdue for overhaul. Who knows? At commercial stations, there’s no ambiguity when the announcers’ roles are changed – they usually get fired and escorted out of the building.
CKUA is still a great station with great producers and announcers, but the sad reality is that the radio pie is shrinking as more people tune to on-line and on-demand.
4. Walterdale roasted for Othello casting
Linette Smith (artistic director of the Scona Alumni Theatre and drama teacher at Strathcona High School) memorized 800 lines for one of William Shakespeare’s most challenging plays – anticipating playing the titular role of Othello in what was supposed to have been a bold twist of gender-bending from the all-volunteer Walterdale Theatre.
Just one problem: She’s white. Othello was a black character.
The ensuing tempest was ferocious. That it seemed to take the Walterdale team by surprise some said was due to “white privilege.” The theatre issued a statement admitting a mistake, said threats had been received, and quickly cancelled the show.
A positive side note here: At the time this happened, in January 2017, people were heard to complain that Edmonton’s theatre scene is literally the “great white way” – but then came successful productions of John Ware Reimagined (about a black Alberta pioneer, played by Jesse Lipscombe) and Pakawan Macbeth (Shakespeare reimagined into Cree culture) – so maybe we’re not so white after all.
5. Theatre star admits sexual misconduct
It looked like local actor-writer-director Chris Craddock was having a great year. He won the $10,000 Edmonton Film Prize for his directorial debut for a movie he wrote (which turned out to be Alan Thicke’s last feature film role, and also happened to feature Jesse Lipscombe): It’s Not My Fault and I Don’t Care Anyway; and Craddock had premiered a production of his original play Irma Voth at Theatre Network. But then seemingly out of the blue – on Facebook – he admitted to sexual harassment, and apologized, at first blaming it on his drug habit. He took a lot of flack on social media, was disowned by Rapid Fire Theatre, where he was once artistic director, and has since “retired” from public life.
Insiders whispered that it wasn’t such a surprise, and that it was only a matter of time. Another great loss for Edmonton theatre.
6. Protest erupts at music conference
This incident looks silly compared to the others – but it sure spurred a lot of discussion. One of the gentlest labour actions ever seen in Edmonton occurred in September when members of the local branch of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) gathered to protest the fact that bands performing at the BreakOut West music conference weren’t being paid. Everybody else involved was getting paid for working at this annual “showcase” event that gets most of its funding from grants – but the bands played for free, for “exposure.”
The protesters jobs’ weren’t on the line. It was proxy protest. Several were esteemed members of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra or respected jazz musicians. These friendly boomers met at the appointed time, marched to the front of the conference’s host hotel, waved signs and chanted things like “Pay the bands, not the man!” There was no response from inside, and the protesters eventually went home.
They did their job. One hell of an argument ensued, with each side presenting a considered, articulate, intelligent case on a complicated issue. Did the union go too far in tilting at this particular windmill? Do BreakOut West and similar conferences exploit musicians? Can we force musicians not to play free showcases if they freely choose to do so? Has anyone ever died of “exposure”?
After the dust settled, we’re more confused than ever.