From My Perspective – Festivals and Commercialization in Edmonton

From My Perspective – Festivals and Commercialization in Edmonton

Edmonton bills itself as “festival city”, and rightly so. Of our numerous summer festivals, the main ones are: Klondike Days, Jazz Festival, Heritage Days, Fringe Festival and the Folk Festival, but there are many other smaller ones such as the Cariwest, Bluesfest, Taste of Edmonton, International Film Festival, Street Performers, and the Blueberry Bluegrass & Country Music Festival that highlight summer in Edmonton. Of all of these festivals, Heritage Days is, to me, Edmonton’s crown jewel.

This is not to say the others are any less stellar. Edmonton’s Fringe festival is a celebration of theatre, a two week event that turns our trendy Whyte Avenue into a mecca of the arts, with plays ranging from Shakespeare to new works by upcoming young playwrights. Whyte Avenue is filled with street artists, art sellers, performers, and everything wild and weird takes over for the duration of the festival.

Edmonton’s Folk Festival is also a beloved event that brings Gallagher Hill alive with the sounds of music for three days, in a river valley setting that provides a perfect natural amphitheatre. Tickets are always sold out long in advance, and up until two years ago, attendees participated in a “run” for the best seats – the moment gates opened, normally staid and well-behaved Edmontonians, after waiting hours in line, would gather up their tents, coolers and blankets, and make a run towards the main stage to stake out the spot that would become a temporary three-day home. Even though it often rains during the beginning of August, folk fest attendees are never daunted – sitting the rain and mud seems to be an important part of the experience!

Klondike Days used to be a celebration of our history, a festival that brought Edmonton’s downtown alive with ten days of free entertainment, a nostalgic journey with people dressed in garments from the gold rush days.

All three of these festivals have fallen victim to change, unfortunately, and it’s not always good. The Fringe Festival is now being held under the watchful “big brother” eye of Edmonton police, who have mounted cameras throughout the avenue to film every festival goer in action. This is supposedly in response to the infamous Whyte Avenue Canada Day riots of two years ago, a measure to maintain crowd control, but many Edmontonians, including myself, consider this a gross and unnecessary invasion of privacy. I always loved attending the Fringe, but my enjoyment will be lessened this year by the presence of these cameras watching and filming my every move.

Klondike Days has been completely ruined by our city council, who several years ago decided that they should try to make it a generic festival that was more like the Calgary Stampede. Downtown entertainment was cut to a minimum, people were encouraged to “dress down” rather than “dress up”, and what used to be a nostalgic walk into the past has become a half-hearted sort-of party that no one feels like attending anymore. Even the wonderful Sunday promenade that used to see Edmonton’s downtown streets shut down while continuous entertainment ran on a dozen stages has become a thing of the past. I didn’t even bother attending K-Days this year – there was nothing left to see.

The Folk Music festival still retains most of its original flavour, even though the “run” for seats has been eliminated. It boasts an impressive line-up of entertainment every year, and crowds are still sell-out. So far the Folk Fest has adapted well to change.

Heritage Days, however, now stands to be the next festival that is ruined by our city. This year saw the implementation of a major change to what I consider Edmonton’s signature festival, a change that corporatized Heritage Days.

Heritage Days is a celebration of what Canada is all about. For three days, virtually every cultural group you can think of (anywhere from 50-70 groups) sets up a tent in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park. Under that tent, each group provides a sample of indigenous food, art, culture, dance, and music. Admission is free, and the park fills with hundreds of thousands of people each day. Food is cooked on outdoor grills, and each pavilion is a unique little world unto itself, where you go to experience the food, crafts and entertainment of fellow Canadians who are of different ethnic origins. In an afternoon you can travel from Egypt to England, from Spain to Sri Lanka, from Peru to Pakistan, from Nigeria to Nicaragua.

This year, for the first time, the Kurdish pavilion allowed this displaced ethic group without a country to share their cultural traditions. According to the Heritage Days website, the festival presents a “celebration of Canada’s renowned multicultural spirit in an atmosphere of tolerance” during which time local cultural associations “look beyond centuries-old disagreements to co-exist peacefully for three days in the idyllic setting of Edmonton’s River Valley” and share their unique cultural traditions. This is an understatement that inadequately describes the wonderful unity and celebration of culture that occurs during Heritage Days.

Although I had attended Heritage Days right from the early days of its conception in the mid-1970’s, I first became involved as a participant in 1988. My daughters are of Spanish heritage, and had been taking flamenco classes, resulting in an invitation from Edmonton’s Spanish Association to dance on the Spanish pavilion stage during Heritage Days. We did this for several years, and each year, a tall, elegant Spanish woman named Fifi, always invited us to join the association. I finally took her up on her offer in the summer of 1990, the same year I remarried.

My husband was very supportive of our membership, even though he was of Lebanese descent, and we soon became actively involved. I was elected to the board as treasurer, and the following year my husband was also elected as a board member.

We developed some wonderful friendships with others of the Spanish association. It was an eclectic mix. Our daughters danced with a young girl whose father was from Argentina, her mother from Spain; and another young girl whose parents were both from Chile. We enjoyed many dinners together, where I learned how to make paella, calamari, and other Spanish dishes, and our different cultures met on a common ground, where origins did not matter.

For several years while we sat on the board of the Spanish Association, we participated in Heritage days as pavilion workers. Some cultural groups viewed earnings from Heritage Days as a way to fund events throughout the year, but the Spanish association was very small. We just saw the event as a chance to showcase Spanish culture, and we didn’t worry much about how much money we made. In fact, most years we barely broke even, and the surplus was used to treat all the workers to a trip to the mountains. During the years my husband and I were involved we tried to build up some reserves to fund a Spanish association building of some kind, a central place to meet. We never managed to earn enough, however.

But we had so much fun at Heritage Days! Our pavilion would be alive with members of Edmonton’s Spanish community and friends, as we hawked a taste of Spain – paella, pepitos (marinated bbq pork), sangria, and patatas bravas. The barbeque would be sizzling with the tantalizing aroma of the pepitos as the dancers performed, and we would all be dancing behind the counter as well, clapping along and shouting supportive olĂ©’s. The conclusion of the dance show was always a lively rumba during which audience members were invited onstage and everyone got up to dance.

At the end of each very long day we would all be happily exhausted – but not too tired to enjoy our own impromptu flamenco party. A guitar player would provide the background music while everyone improvised in a dance, the cooks would fry up a special seafood-filled worker’s paella, and we’d share a glass of “real” sangria (with wine), or a “sombra y sol” (Spanish drink that combines brandy with licorice liquor) as we finally relaxed together.

One year we tried an innovative new concept – “taste Spain for a dollar”, in which we provided small samples of all the traditional foods for just a loonie. People loved it, and our pavilion was the most popular on site that year. Many pavilions tried a system of ticketing to keep track of sales, but it was not always successful, being clumsy and slow, and generally we found it easiest to just work with cash. Hand over your loonie and get a plate of food. It was a casual and spontaneous atmosphere that marked the spirit of the festival itself. Heritage Days was built on volunteers and sharing, and it was not intended to be a money-maker.

With any group, of course, change occurs and sometimes there are conflicts. We, and many of our friends, discontinued our active participation with the Spanish association when new members joined who felt that people of non-Spanish descent should not be on the board. It was ironic that these kinds of attitudes should have interfered with what brings Edmontonian’s together in a celebration of cultural differences, and it saddened me.

However, we continued to enjoy the offerings of the Spanish pavilion each year at Heritage Days, and the friendships we had made endured. This year, however, the Spanish pavilion did not participate in Heritage Days, nor did several of the other founding groups such as Germany, France, Scotland and Japan. Why? Edmonton is now commercializing the festival. Several years of severe rainy weather had hindered attendance, resulting in financial difficulties for the festival organization. Each pavilion pays a fee to participate, but then are free to sell their product and collect the proceeds.

During the past few years the festival organization has implemented several measures to improve their financial situation, for example, a corporate sponsorship with Coke that saw pavilions obligated to purchase their soft drinks from the festival at a much higher rate, reducing any profit on resale. This year, however, festival organizers took it a step further and implemented a ticketing system. Instead of buying your food directly from each pavilion, festival goers now have to buy tickets at 85 cents each, of which 10 cents goes to the Heritage festival. In protest, eight of the founding pavilions withdrew their participation this year, including the Spanish pavilion.

Why are these tickets a problem? For pavilions like Spain, they were already simply breaking even, and the charges for rentals and things like pop purchase had already squeezed out what small profit could be made. The spontaneity has been destroyed – a key element to food sales is catching someone’s attention as they walk by, and once they’ve gone they don’t usually return, their dollar spent at another pavilion. The odd 85 cent amount resulted in long, slow line ups to purchase tickets, with many complaining that the amount was confusing and resulted in delays for providing change.

For most pavilions food items required four or five tickets, resulting in a price increase. Where in previous years, for example, a beverage would have been $1.00, it now became $1.70 (two tickets). Price gouging on ice cream was rampant, with vendors selling a popsicle for $2.55 (three tickets). For some strange reason, the organizers also chose to cut off ticket sales before the pavilions themselves closed – resulting in many complaints from people wanting to purchase food late in the day and being unable to do so without a ticket.

The need to raise money also resulted in anomalies such as Second Cup being invited to participate as a sponsor and having the largest, most central tent – the most common comment I heard from people was that they didn’t know Second Cup was a country!

My favourite festival is in danger of being ruined by the “need” to turn it into a commercial money-maker. Many in Edmonton agree, and although we recognize the need to have funding to survive, hopefully the festival organizers will look at other funding options next year instead of the ticket system. Most importantly, I hope that those pavilions who abstained from participation this year will return. In particular, I know the Heritage festival is diminished by the loss of the Spanish pavilion.

The profound influence the Spanish pavilion had on Heritage Days can be seen on their website, and on an Edmonton postcard series, both of which feature our flamenco dancers. A festival that makes such a significant contribution to the celebration of our Canadian multiculturalism should not be allowed to become just another commercial venture.


Heritage Days website:

Heritage Festival less for loss of pavilions: Way must be found to restore the mosaic of multiculturalism. Paul Simons, Edmonton Journal: