In a post on his blog this morning, Chris Butcher, the co-founder and longtime artistic director of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), announced he is stepping down from his position. Butcher announced his departure to the TCAF board on June 5th, but made it public today. The reasons were both professional and personal.
On Friday June 5th I met with Miles Baker, TCAF’s Managing Director, and Peter Birkemoe, owner of The Beguiling and TCAF’s Co-Founder and primary sponsor, to let them know I would not continue in my role as Artistic Director of TCAF for the rest of 2020 and beyond. I had hoped to relinquish all of my responsibilities to TCAF, and to do so for two reasons—to address persistent health and wellness issues in my own life that I had neglected, and in the hopes that existing staff and potential staff and volunteers might be able to move up into the organization into leadership roles that I was abdicating. I’d been doing so much for so long that I didn’t feel I could let go of, until I realized that letting go completely was the best thing that I could do for both the festival and myself. I offered to do whatever was asked of me to ensure that the Festival could and would continue, in an advisory role. I wasn’t going to announce this publicly until more work had been done, but given the criticism that both TCAF and myself have received today I wanted to provide this information that I feel is relevant to the discussion, about the steps that I personally, as well as the organization, are taking.
Butcher founded TCAF with Peter Birkemoe, owner of the Beguiling, with the first show held in 2003 as a small gathering. In subsequent years, TCAF became one of the premier shows for literary and indie comics in the world, with authors from Asia, Europe and North America attending, and more than 25,000 comics lovers visiting the Toronto Reference Library and a dozen other venues where the Festival took place. Butcher became known as a tireless crusader for indie comics, especially manga, and was much liked in the comics community. He is also currently the manager of the Pages and Panels bookstore within the Toronto Reference Library.
But while Butcher cited his own personal issues and the need to find successors for the show as the reasons for departing, he also acknowledged that TCAF and he, personally, had not been as open to marginalized voices as it should have been:
I also want to acknowledge the criticism that the Festival and I specifically have received, particularly around issues of support, inclusion, and recognition of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people. I understand these criticisms and I believe they are necessary to address imbalances within the organization. I sincerely apologize for the role I played in devaluing the contributions of members of staff and volunteers. I believe in both statements that TCAF has made this week, and believe that TCAF will continue to improve and be a necessary part of comics. I’m committed to these same principles of improvement for myself—I want to be better and I want to step back completely and take the time to do so.
The statements include two posted to the TCAF website this week, one regarding sexual harassment and one regarding Indigenous and Black participation. Both statements were signed by Butcher, Miles Baker and the TCAF Board (Coralie D’Souza, Gary Sherman, Kawai Shen, Khris Cuthbertson, and Birkemoe).
Even as these statements were going out (but before Butcher’s resignation was public), TCAF volunteer cartoonist Victor Martins posted about the lack of BIPOC representation and their own feelings of being silenced in a Twitter thread:
— vic (@cosmonautVico) June 30, 2020
In the thread, Martins noted that there are no Black or Indigenous members of the TCAF board. They also allege that at TCAF planning meetings Butcher was dismissive of the concerns of members from marginalized groups and that Martins was made physically ill from anxiety over attending the meetings because of this. They also noted that BIPOC volunteers were often passed over for promotions and not given enough credit for the show’s success.
Others took to Twitter to back up Martins’s allegations.
I am in this thread. I have a lot more of my own experiences to talk about too, but more importantly, the thread should speak for itself, and I really wanna thank Victor for writing it all up. I also want TCAF to do better. https://t.co/IuhrONQYZN
— Kim (@kimbert) June 30, 2020
It is frustrating and heartbreaking that the festival squandered this opportunity. A room full of diverse, talented and passionate volunteers met weekly and burned out for this outcome. 100% read the whole thread.
— Dan Seljak-Byrne (@anotherglassbox) July 1, 2020
While TCAF presented a wide array of cartoonists from around the world (including some of the most significant Manga guests ever to come to North America), and had a huge queer presence, it’s disheartening to hear that behind the scenes, the sensitivity to BIPOC issues and other marginalized groups was lacking.
TCAF is scheduled to be held in 2021, but what changes the show will have going forward will be an evolving story.