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Harbourfont in hot water

Despite extended funding, the future of Harbourfront is still in doubt

By Brunella Mazzotta

The future of Toronto’s Harbourfront “is obviously not a top priority” for the federal government, says a Harbourfront Centre spokeswoman.

Ellen Cole, director of communications for Harbourfront, says she is losing confidence in the government’s commitment to the waterfront facility.

A report addressing long-term funding for the centre is to be submitted to federal Public Works Minister David Dingwall by July 31, but one week before the deadline, a facilitator has still not been chosen.

Dingwall promised Harbourfront officials in April a facilitator would be appointed as soon as possible to draft the report.

“The deadline is not going to be met,” said France Gattom, a Public Works spokeswoman. “The deadlines are going to have to change.”

Harbourfront was to close this September after the federal government announced in April it was going to cut more than $8 million in annual funding. 

Dingwall said at the time that the federal government “cannot commit to ongoing annual subsidies to fund Harbourfront.”

Later that month Ottawa did an about-face and extended funding for two years. The additional funding came after a public outcry and warnings from the Japanese government that Canada-Japan relations would suffer if Harbourfront closed. The closure was scheduled days before the Today’s Japan exhibit was to open.

Three years in the planning, the $4 million Today’s Japan is the largest contemporary Japanese arts exhibition ever featured in North America, and is scheduled for an 11-week run.

Judy Harquail, chair of the Save the Harbourfront Centre Coalition, says that Ottawa is waiting for the Today’s Japan exhibit to end before they abandon their responsibility for Harbourfront.

“I think a large part of their reversal of the decision had to do with public pressure they were getting over Today’s Japan,” Harquail said.

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Jean Chretien said in April that Ottawa “is enthusiastic about the festival taking place and nothing in our plans for his year should jeopardize that.”

But Ottawa’s failure to appoint a facilitator is making life difficult for Harbourfront’s director of operations, Gary Eldred. 

He wants to know what will happen after the two-year funding extension “so that we have some idea about year three and onward. “It becomes difficult for us in program planning and the commitments we have to make (without the report),” Eldred said.

Harbourfront starts planning for its 1997-98 fiscal year in mid-September. The federal government has “a moral and ethical responsibility” to submit their report on time, Harquail said.

She said the government is “putting it off as long as they can” so Harbourfront cannot make their financial plans, adding no one in the coalition believed the fight to save Harbourfront was over when Ottawa extended funding. 

“I just think that they’re becoming more and more confident that they’ll just be able to get away with this,” Harquail said. 

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