By Charlie Smith
This year’s Heart of the City Festival was missing two of its most important voices.
Sadly, the festival’s artist in residence, Kat Zu’comulwat Norris, and long-time participant Sid Chow Tan each passed away earlier this year.
Residents of the Downtown Eastside revered Kat and Sid for speaking out against injustice and for building bridges between Indigenous and racialized communities.
I knew both of them for many years. I think about them as my teachers.
Kat, a survivor of the notorious Kuper Island Indian Residential School, taught me about resilience. She suffered abuse that most of us cannot even comprehend. Yet she remained incredibly upbeat and supportive of others.
When a cherished job came to an end—an utterly trivial event compared to what Kat endured in her life—I drew on her example to move forward with optimism on our new project called Pancouver.
One of my happiest moments in that previous job was seeing Kat on the cover of the newspaper that employed me. It was a dream to feature her in this way and tell our readers how special she truly was.
I’ll always remember her sense of humour, even as she struggled with illness, and hope that her surviving family members can take comfort in knowing how much she was admired.
A warrior for the poor
From Sid, I learned many things about the strength of the Lo Wah Kiu (old overseas Chinese) who made Hum Siu Fow (Saltwater City) their home.
I also learned about the value of community service from Sid. He was a true public servant, forgoing material wealth so he could devote himself to advancing the dignity of Chinese seniors and low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside.
Sid was a warrior for the poor and disenfranchised, applying his impressive intellect to advance their interests. He often did this through documentary filmmaking.
He was also committed to the fight against rising greenhouse gas emissions back in the 1990s. To put it simply, Sid was a man ahead of his time.
One of Sid’s passions, which he articulated to me about 20 years ago, was to encourage racialized people to support one another in their struggles. He felt that it was essential for people to get out of their silos and work collectively on social justice.
In her own way, Kat reflected this philosophy as well, eagerly lending a hand to non-Indigenous people seeking a fairer society. She was also an actor, radio host, and public speaker.
Kudos to festival founders
In addition, I want to give credit to the founders of the Heart of the City Festival, Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling.
Terry and Savannah are two of Vancouver’s unsung heroes for their service to the neighbourhood that they’ve called home for decades.
Over the years, they repeatedly provided a platform for Kat and Sid to elevate our collective understanding of the Downtown Eastside.
In fact, through Vancouver Moving Theatre (VMT), which produces the festival, Terry and Savannah have made a priority of programming Indigenous artists and storytellers.
This year, Heart of the City ran from October 26 to November 6. It included more than 100 events over 12 days, showcasing the Downtown Eastside in ways rarely featured in the mainstream media.