Top Festival Picks – 16th Annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival

With more than 100 events scheduled over 12 days at over 40 locations throughout the Downtown Eastside, the 16th Annual DTES Heart of the City Festival (October 30 – November 10, 2019) has a cornucopia of cultural events and artistic activities to attend, participate in, and enjoy. Here are thirteen exciting Top Festival Picks.  

  1. Sis Ne’ Bi -Yïz: Mother Bear Speaks: A play written and performed by Taninli Wright (Wet’suwet’en) about her remarkable Messenger of Hope Walk. Inspired by the true story of this emerging artist who walked 1,600 km across British Columbia to give voice to First Nations children and other marginalized youth. Developed in collaboration with Laura Barron, Jason Clift, Julie McIsaac and Jessica Schacht. Produced by Instruments of Change.

Wednesday Oct 30, 7:30pm; matinee Friday Nov 1, 3pm; Saturday Nov 2, 8pm; matinee Sunday Nov 3, 3pm. Firehall Arts Centre, 280 E. Cordova. $20/15 (inc. s/c + GST). Tickets at door or advance sales: 604-689-0926;, or

  1. Tale of the Eastside Lantern: The Festival is thrilled to partner on this workshop presentation of scenes and songs from a new hybrid Chinese Rock Opera performed in English and Cantonese with actors, Chinese Opera performers, and the Son of James Band. “In the streets and shops of Vancouver’s Chinatown, Jimmy wrestles with his personal demons and sets out to solve a mystery that is guarded by Chinese Opera spirits of the underworld. Jimmy is led by the sounds of rock music and motivated by the oldest feeling in the world…love.” Written and composed by Shon Wong and directed by Andy Toth. Produced by Vancouver Cantonese Opera and Son of James Band in partnership with Vancouver Moving Theatre. 

Thursday Oct 31, 7pm. CBC Studio 700, 700 Hamilton. TIckets $15 at the door, or advance at:

  1. ūtszan: This passionate story about language and how it informs identity, follows the journey of a woman and her quest to reclaim her language. In the process, she uncovers Indigenous knowledge, humour, strength and resilience. ūtszan (to make things better) is written and performed by Yvonne Wallace (Lilwat) and directed by Jefferson Guzman.

Thursday Oct 31, 7:30pm; Friday Nov 1, 8pm; matinee Saturday Nov 2, 3pm. Firehall Arts Centre, 280 E. Cordova. $20/15 (inc. s/c + GST). Tickets at door or advance sales: 604-689-0926;, or

  1. Home, Homelessness and the Culture In-Between: A week-long residency exploring the challenges and hopes experienced by residents of Single-Room-Occupancy hotels and the Downtown Eastside.  This project led by Renae Morriseau with Sophie Merasty, features an array of activities including visual art, facilitated discussions, ceremony and theatre. Highlights include: SRO by Middle of the Sky (aka Brenda Prince), a new play with a fascinating style that tells the story of an Indigenous woman trapped in a DTES SRO and her efforts to escape from her circumstances; and the SRO – Indigenous Women’s Project, which features women sharing stories, performances and vignettes that honour their lived experience of ‘home’ – within themselves and within the DTES. Produced in partnership with Urban Ink Productions. 

Thursday Oct 31 to Wednesday November 6. InterUrban Gallery, 1 E. Hastings, entrance on Carrall. 

For event details visit By donation at the door. 

  1. Pulling Together Canoe Landing: Join the Festival, the Vancouver Police Museum and the Pulling Together Canoe Society at Crab Park beach for a mini-landing of canoes by three canoe families. The canoes will be welcomed in ceremony, and then the paddlers and guests will journey on land to the Police Museum and the exhibition “Healing Waters”: an exploration of how communities heal through connecting to cultural practice. This landing, in honour of the inaugural Pulling Together canoe journey in 2001, launches a year of story gathering and history sharing in preparation for the twentieth Anniversary celebration of the Pulling Together Society at next year’s 2020 Heart of the City Festival. 

Saturday Nov 2, 11am. Crab Park, north foot of Main. Free

  1. Speaking in Tongues: Join guests Woody Morrison, David Ng, Grace Eiko Thomson, and Dalannah Gail Bowen in a conversation that explores mother tongues and how their interactions can give birth to hybrid languages such as Japanese Pidgin, a language unique to the west coast of Canada. This conversation is part of “Homing Pidgin”, an interactive installation by Haruko Okano that explores how language is a living and historical component of all cultures. 

Saturday Nov 2, 1pm. Centre A, #205 – 268 Keefer. Free

  1. Spotlight on the East End: A special three concert music series that profiles an exciting line-up of local POC, Indigenous and marginalized emerging and professional musicians. The 2019 Festival Artist-in-Residence Khari Wendell McClelland (The Sojourners/Freedom Singer) is the Curator. Featured musicians include Tonye Aganaba, Francis Arevalo, Desirée Dawson, Shannon Bauman, among many more!


  • Saturday Nov 2, 7:30pm, The Heatley, 696 E. Hastings. Free 
  • Thursday Nov 7, 8pm, Russian Hall, 600 Campbell. $20/15. Tickets at door or advance sales:
  • Saturday Nov 9, 8pm, Tight Club, 261 Union. $20/15. Tickets at door or advance sales:


  1. Ukrainian Hall Community Concert & Supper: Enjoy a Sunday afternoon at the east-end’s historic Ukrainian Hall with lively choral and orchestral music, exciting dance, and exquisite costumes, followed by a traditional supper. This annual favourite, produced with the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians, features the Hall’s own Barvinok Choir, Vancouver Folk Ensemble and the award-winning Dovbush Dancers. Special guests this year include, among others, Arno Kamolika, a Vancouver-based Bharatanatyam dance artist, and Vostok (The East), an East Vancouver based vocal trio specializing in music from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Immediately following the concert is the always-delicious sit-down Ukrainian Supper. The best full meal and concert deal in Vancouver!

Sunday Nov 3, concert 3pm, supper follows. Ukrainian Hall, 805 E. Pender. $25. For information contact 604-254-3436. For advance tickets:

  1. Close Connections: Three powerhouse writers read and reflect on their close connections to Vancouver’s historic East End, Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside: Amber Dawn, recipient of the Lambda Literary Award and the Vancouver Book Award; Jen Sookfong Lee, teacher, popular CBC broadcaster, and writer of The End is East and Chinese New Year: A Celebration for Everyone; and Cecily Nicholson, recipient of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (2015) and the Governor General’s Award for English-language poetry (2018). Host: Khari McClelland

Wednesday Nov 6, 7pm. Massy Books, 229 E. Georgia. Free

  1. Opening Doors – Vancouver’s East End 2019: A dramatization based on Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter’s extraordinary local legend-of-a-book Opening Doors first published in 1979. This workshop presentation features the oral history and lived experience of Indigenous and settler women of diverse cultural backgrounds who lived, worked and raised families in the vibrant and historic Vancouver East End. Directed by Donna Spencer. Co-produced by the Firehall Arts Centre and Vancouver Moving Theatre. 

Wednesday Nov 6, pwyc preview 1pm; Wednesday Nov 6, Thursday Nov 7, 7:30pm; Friday Nov 8, Saturday Nov 9, 8pm; matinee Saturday Nov 9, 3pm. Firehall Arts Centre, 280 E. Cordova. $20/15 (inc. s/c + GST). Tickets at door or advance sales: 604-689-0926;, or

  1. Irreparable Harm?: The newly formed Sinister Sisters Ensemble is composed of activists and theatre folk, young and old, First Nations and settlers, many of whom were arrested in the protests against the twining of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Using videos, transcripts of the court proceedings, and statements that were read in the courtroom, this production shines a light on the strengths and weaknesses of our current justice system.

Friday Nov 8, 3pm. Carnegie Theatre, 401 Main. Free

  1. Two Documentaries: Arising From the Downtown Eastside
  • The Story Behind Weaving Reconciliation: Our Way (25’): In 2018, Vancouver Moving Theatre, in a collaboration led by Indigenous artists, knowledge-keepers and partners across the land, toured Weaving Reconciliation: Our Way to cities and communities across Canada. This play and cultural encounter – created in the Downtown Eastside by co-writers Rosemary Georgeson, Renae Morriseau and Savannah Walling, with contributions from the cast, knowledge-keepers and partnering communities –  brought to life the story of Old One and his heartbreaking and hilarious journey to reconcile with himself, his family and community. Local filmmaker Jessica Hallenbeck (Lantern Films) has created an exquisite short film that traces the national tour, cultural practices across the land, and the reflections of participating actors, youth and elders. 

Saturday Nov 9, The Story Behind Weaving Reconciliation Our Way, 7pm. Carnegie Theatre, 401 Main. Free

  • Survivors Totem Pole (24’): In 2016, the Survivors Totem Pole was carved by Downtown Eastside resident and activist Skundaal Bernie Williams, and then raised at Pigeon Park in a powerful pole raising and potlatch witnessing ceremony attended by over 1,000 residents, Elders and VIPs. This moving film, by filmmaker Susanne Tabata, follows the extraordinary community-led journey to create and raise a monument to survivors: a tribute to the enduring strength, resistance, persistence and inclusion of the Downtown Eastside community.  Following the film presentation Susanne Tabata, Skundaal Bernie Williams, and guests from the Sacred Circle Society will speak. 

Saturday Nov 9, Survivors Totem Pole, 8pm. Carnegie Theatre, 401 Main. Free

  1. Carnegie Jazz Band & Special Guests: The Festival closes with an exciting afternoon of hot jazz featuring special guest Tom Pickett singing a selection of original songs written for Downtown Eastside music and theatre productions, along with popular jazz standards heard in the clubs and streets of Vancouver’s historic East End. Joining the Carnegie Jazz Band, led by multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger Brad Muirhead, are two of Vancouver’s finest jazz musicians: Hugh Fraser (trombone/piano) and Adrian Smith (trumpet).

Sunday Nov 10, 2pm. Carnegie Theatre, 401 Main. Free

Most Festival events are free or by donation. Visit for full details.

The 2019 Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival has been made possible with the generous support of Canadian Heritage, Canada Council for the Arts, BC Arts Council, BC Gaming, City of Vancouver Cultural Services, SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs and Partnerships, VanCity Savings, Quesnel Foundation, and media sponsors Georgia Straight, City TV and Omni Television.

Media release and image provided by Jodi Smith, JLS Entertainment. Feature image photo credit: Tim Matheson

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