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Look beyond the headlines into the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside through this virtual festival

From October 28 to November 8, the 17th annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival will bring the community’s residents and artists together for over 100 re-imagined and inspired cultural events, artistic activities, and opportunities to come together.
Leslie Nelson, Marr Dorvault & Sam McKay. Photo: David Cooper for Downtown Eastside Heart of the CIty Festival.

From October 28 to November 8, the 17th annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival welcomes you to over 100 events in the city’s most culturally and socially diverse neighbourhood — and the place where Vancouver began.

Situated on Coast Salish homelands between Burrard Inlet and the False Creek Flats, Victory Square, and Clark Drive, the Downtown Eastside is home to one of Canada’s largest urban Aboriginal reserves, North America’s second largest historical Chinatown, and Canada’s largest and busiest port.

Like communities across the land, residents are coping with a worldwide pandemic, an opioid and housing crisis, and legacies of historic displacement and systemic racism. When gathering places close and people are isolated, they lose their sense of cultural connection and community connection.

This year, more than ever, Downtown Eastside residents and artists seek cultural events, artistic activity, and opportunities to come together. A host of partners and hundreds of artists have joined together for this year’s festival, sharing strengths arising from the community’s compelling creativity and resilience, rich diverse traditions, knowledge systems, ancestral languages, cultural roots, and stories.

James Pau, Sam McKay, Marr Dorvault, Mike Richter & Leslie Nelson. Photo: David Cooper for Downtown Eastside Heart of the CIty Festival.

In response to COVID-19, the festival has been re-imagined, with programming mostly online and some outdoors, along with a handful of intimate events in theatres or in parks.

2020's Heart of the City Festival programming includes music, stories, poetry, ceremony, cultural exchanges, films, readings, forums, workshops, discussions, art talks, history talks, and visual exhibitions.

Here are some of the featured events for this year's festival:


  • An evening with blues queen Dalannah Gail Bowen; 

  • Spotlight on the East End with Khari Wendell McClelland, Geoff Berner, Hannah Walker, Rup Sidhu, and Shon Wong’s Son of James; 

  • DTES Front and Centre Showcase, sharing stories and songs by local performers, and

  • East End Blues & All That Jazz, bringing music and stories of the historic Black residential community, with gospel and blues artists Tom Pickett and Candus Churchill, and guests Thelma Gibson and Dalannah Gail Bowen.


  • An online Tribute to the Carnegie Centre’s 40th Anniversary with special guest Libby Davies; 

  • A film about the Survivors Totem Pole by Susanne Tabata: Carver Skuundaal Bernie Williams and the powerful pole-raising and potlatch witnessing ceremony at Pigeon Park attended by Elders, VIP’s and over 1000 residents;

  • Long-time activist Sid Chow Tan shares videos highlighting direct action in Chinatown (My Art is Activism, Part II).  

Larissa Healey. Photo: David Cooper for Downtown Eastside Heart of the CIty Festival.


  • Hearts Beat, with the lexwst’l:lem Drum Group, Irish Canadian group Ceol Abú, and musician Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (online from Ireland). 

  • In the Beginning: A Cultural Sharing: storyteller Rosemary Georgeson, Firehall Artistic Producer Donna Spencer and moderator Kim Haxton, are joined by Indigenous elders, knowledge keepers, and artists to share stories and history of local Indigenous peoples prior to and during colonization (Firehall Arts Centre and Vancouver Moving Theatre presentation).


  • Scenes from we the same, Ruby Slipper Theatre’s new play by Sangeeta Wylie inspired by the true story of a mother’s flight from Vietnam with her six children. 

  • A virtual residency with Imagi’Nation Collective launches Jenifer Reads, a new program hosted by APTN TV personality Jenifer Brousseau (Wild Archeology).  She has invited diverse youth to join her in reading and engaging through an Indigenous lens with Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl.  

Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making — a virtual residency with Toronto-based Jumblies Theatre & Arts — will artfully explore why and how people sometimes do good things towards others. A team of Toronto artists, Vancouver artists, and Downtown Eastside participants are creating this interactive online event; the public is invited to take part in the online workshops, talks, gallery, and concert.

These are the kinds of activities that bring strength to Downtown Eastside community members — putting everyone’s voice in the circle, nurturing and restoring social bonds, pulling together, healing through culture, and standing in their truth.

For more info, visit