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Transparency, please

A scene from “Homer the Great” episode of “The Simpsons” showing members of The Stonecutters in their secret meeting place.

FILE PHOTO Enlarge Image

A scene from “Homer the Great” episode of “The Simpsons” showing members of The Stonecutters in their secret meeting place.

Homer: I saw weird stuff in that place last night. Weird, strange, sick, twisted, eerie, godless, evil stuff! And I want in.

Winnipeg bluegrass band the Magnificent Sevens performs at the U.S.A. pavilion in the hall at St. Matthews Church on 13th Street during the ninth annual Lieutenant Governor's Winter Festival in 2012.

Enlarge Image

Winnipeg bluegrass band the Magnificent Sevens performs at the U.S.A. pavilion in the hall at St. Matthews Church on 13th Street during the ninth annual Lieutenant Governor's Winter Festival in 2012. (FILE PHOTO)

Carl: We don’t, uh, know what you’re talking about, Homer.

Lenny: And you can’t join The Stonecutters because it’s too exclusive!

— From "Homer the Great" episode of "The Simpsons"

Allow me to set the record straight right off the top — I love the Lieutenant Governor’s Winter Festival.

Since I first moved back here in 2004, I couldn’t believe Brandon could muster such a wonderful and enjoyable mid-winter event to beat the snowy blahs that always come around this time of year.

I’ve attended almost every year and have both taken pictures at pavilions while working for the Sun, driven to various pavilions to meet folks and taken the free city bus shuttle service for the occasions that it was simply time to kick up my heels and leave the car keys at home.

I’ve been to the large pavilions, the small pavilions; the wet pavilions, the dry pavilions. I’ve stood shivering outside on the coldest nights of the year; I’ve breezed past the line waving my press pass while on duty for the Sun.

I’ve seen how much fun people have at it. I’ve watched the volunteers working away tirelessly in kitchens of bussing tables. I’ve enjoyed good entertainment — world-class — and I’ve winced at some not-ready-for prime time acts.

I used to cover Winnipeg’s Folklorama, when working as an entertainment writer at The Winnipeg Sun, so I have good experience with these types of multi-venue, multi-day events.

I truly enjoy the fact it isn’t all under one roof — such as at the Keystone Centre — as it gets folks out to various venues in town and helps some smaller community centres and clubs make some extra cash. And it was always interesting to see how many pavilions would be featured each year and which demographic of our multicultural mosaic would be represented

But in recent days, as the festival gets ready to celebrate its 10th anniversary, some questionable behind-the-scenes procedures and a lack of solid policy and framework for the growing festival have been exposed by this media outlet.

And it all came to light when the hugely popular U.S.A. pavilion — allowed to stage a pavilion in a church basement last year after being denied its initial application the year previous — is to be excluded from this year’s Jan. 31-Feb. 2 event.

The American pavilion committee released a statement Thursday, expressing concern and confusion over the festival committee’s decision to decline their application.

"Our exclusion is a loss to the diversity of the Lt. Governor’s Winter Festival, to the large community of American citizens in our region, and to those who want the festival to be the very best it can be," states Wanda-Leigh Rains, U.S.A. pavilion ambassador and Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society board member.

"The Office of the US Consul-General worked closely with us last year and had planned on having officials present to open the American pavilion this year."

Now, I’m not going to get into the minor details of whether the folk festival people — a group that has staged cultural events for 25 years — didn’t cross a "T" or dot an "I" in their application.

I’m saying the broad strokes of why that particular group was denied a pavilion were completely shocking to me when uncovered in a series of interviews this week by reporter Jillian Austin and through my own sources.

And it brought to my mind and episode of "The Simpsons," when Homer notices that co-workers Lenny and Carl are enjoying inexplicable privileges and learns they are part of a secret society called The Stonecutters.

There are impossibly difficult rites of passage to join, but once he’s in, Homer takes great pleasure in the society’s secret privileges.

In relation to the real-life cultural groups behind the Lieutenant Governor’s Winter Festival pavilions, it can mean a lot of money — tens of thousands of dollars — and plenty of perks. Even if there is some hard work involved. To be allowed in the festival — there is no hazing or paddling, as far as I know — there are a few things we’ve learned:

• Esther Bryan, the city’s community development manager and past-chair of the festival, told the Sun the American pavilion’s application was declined in the fall after a secret vote by the festival committee of the whole.

• Pavilions that have been running in the festival for three or more consecutive years each get two voting rights, which included Irish, First Nations, Métis, Ukrainian, French Canadian, English and Salvadoran.

• That Super Committee with double the voting power contributed to the application being declined.

• "No reason was provided for the rejection and festival officials provided no appeal process," states the American pavilion press release.

• Bryan said the committee isn’t required to give any reasons behind the decision. So in this era of allegations that any political figure or city official who breathes air in Brandon is in some form of a real or perceived conflict of interest, this closed-door, secret ballot, double-vote situation is allowed to exist boggles the mind.

I loathe the term, but the decision-making process behind the scenes at this event is a poster child calling for transparency.

But it gets better.

It appears the festival folks — in scrambling to make up policy on the fly — are now hanging their hats on the fact the BFMAS hadn’t set up a distinct American society apart from the BFMAS.

Mo Karrouze — president of the local English society, and a major festival sponsor and entertainer — said he also hopes to see the U.S.A. back in the festival, put together by Americans and run by "a proper non-profit organization."

"I think that there were people there that really did a good job, but there is a protocol and you can’t get around it," he told the Sun. "We’ve all been though it … and we all protect it very vehemently."

What complete and utter rot. The BFMAS is a registered incorporated community non-profit in operation to educate and promote cultural activities and the arts. It has access to some 140 volunteers, an existing infrastructure, a bank account, well-established community relationships.

Oh, and has a legal duty to be financially accountable.

As for real Americans? Well, there was U.S.A. Pavilion Ambassador BFMAS board member Wanda-Leigh Rains, for one. And there were others. I’m also told many visitors to the pavilion were from Minot, N.D., and area.

Some Lieutenant Governor’s Winter Festival officials, I’m told, continually asserted that the BFMAS was solely interested in channeling profits from the pavilion to bolster the annual Brandon Folk, Music and Art Festival.

Not true, I’m told. It was to help stage and promote various community educational and cultural events throughout the year.

Isn’t that exactly what they’re supposed to do as a charitable organization under the registered category of "education — cultural activities and promotion of the arts?"

And I’d really like to know exactly how many of the other pavilions over the years were distinct "societies" — they were more of a wide variety of loosely organized groups of folks of all different kinds of ethnicities.

I’d also like the pavilions to have to provide a full accounting of not just the city money they receive, which they do, but of all the money they raise and where it ends up. As this event grows, it would be a shame to discover someone or a group is lining their pockets at what is essentially a city-organized event with the vice-regal’s name on it.

As for the distinct society requirement that’s now so "vehemently" protected, the French pavilion was held in Canad Inns Brandon. But I can’t find any evidence of a Francophone Society of Brandon or Westman.

All the promotional material for the pavilion in past years stated was: "Canad Inns Destination Centre Brandon and the Francophone of Westman are proud to bring the French Canadian Pavilion to Brandon."

But I digress.

Maybe it’s just that people don’t like the United States? Eh?

Well, that’s unlikely.

In conclusion, many pavilions have come and gone through the past decade. And for good reason.

But the disappearance of the American pavilion this year and the reasons given for it, only leaves me to say that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.

And no, Denmark is not one of the 13 pavilions this year.

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 4, 2013

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You whine about transparency, but where was this transparency during you buddies COA. Hidden with the stone cutters.
Your bias is very unflattering , and maybe you should spend less time bashing the good people at the Festival, an mor time trying to get grap on delivering news 7 dys a week .

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Homer: I saw weird stuff in that place last night. Weird, strange, sick, twisted, eerie, godless, evil stuff! And I want in.

Carl: We don’t, uh, know what you’re talking about, Homer.

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Homer: I saw weird stuff in that place last night. Weird, strange, sick, twisted, eerie, godless, evil stuff! And I want in.

Carl: We don’t, uh, know what you’re talking about, Homer.

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