Fifteen years ago, CBC’s The Arts Report ran an article on how Edmonton’s 35+ major event organizers were banding together to brand province’s capital as the “Festival City.” The campaign targeted all of Canada and America’s Pacific Northwest. “A tourist coming here may not know which festival is on, but knows something is happening,” said Ken Fiske, the then-vice president of tourism at Economic Development Edmonton.
The campaign was a success. Today, “Festival City” outranks “City of Champions” as Edmonton’s identifying feature, and it’s not hard to see why. Every season sees Edmonton hosting a hotly anticipated event: K-Days, Edmonton International Street Performer’s Festival; Edmonton Folk Music Festival, Taste of Edmonton, Interstellar Rodeo, Freewill Shakespeare Festival – no matter what you are into, Edmonton has a festival to help you celebrate it.
One of the city’s longest running festivals is K-Days, whose first exhibition was at Fort Edmonton in 1879. It was largely an agricultural fair, showing off farmers’ best livestock, produce, and handmade goods. Year by year, attendance grew; in 1904, more than 20,000 showed up. In 1910, the expanding event was moved to Northlands, where it has taken place ever since.
K-Days continues to evolve.
“For the first time ever, we will be serving local Alberta craft beer exclusively throughout the K-Days grounds,” informs Carson Mills, communications manager, Northlands. “In cooperation with the Alberta Small Brewers Association and Travel Alberta, we are making several of the best craft breweries in Alberta available on the biggest stage of all.
“In addition to this, we will be holding several cultural events, including our third annual K-Days Pow Wow in partnership with Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation from July 24 to 26, and Pride Day on July 26. We are excited to have this venue to celebrate the diverse cultures that define us.”
There is something new for the children as well. Mills explains, “This year, we are providing a tremendous opportunity for kids with Explore Agriculture in Hall A. At Explore Agriculture, guests will learn the importance of agriculture and how agriculture is all around us every day! This is your opportunity to get up close and personal with farm animals, including hands-on activities and live demonstrations with the animals.”
Of course, old favourites are still on hand. “This year also marks the return of one of our favorite rides – the world-famous Zipper! In recognition of its 50th anniversary, this K-Days classic is returning to thrill and delight a whole new generation!”
Another long-standing event is the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. Bobbie O’Connor, director of development & communications, points out that the Edmonton Fringe Festival is the oldest in North America – and it’s not just hotly anticipated for festival-goers; it’s a huge opportunity for the performers, too.
“What makes us special is that we are not juried or censored,” says O’Connor. This provides unique opportunities to the 1,300 artists involved. For example, for some professional artists, it’s a chance to test out new and creative ideas. For others, it might be a chance to make a break as they transition from community theatre to professional theatre.
“Another unique aspect of our Festival is that artists receive 100 per cent of the ticket sale price, and there is no admission fee to get into the Festival site. In every aspect, it is a Festival that is built, run, and supported by the community.”
“Artists come from across the world. We’ve had artists from every continent participate in our Festival. Each year, we select approximately 100 artists through a lottery, and those artists are provided an additional $8,000 in support to perform their show. This investment, in combination with our very well-known, engaging audiences, make our Festival a dream destination for many artists…and worth a long plane ride!”
Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is nearing four decades of being a popular mainstay event, celebrating its 37th year this summer.
“Our Festival is an experience that unites so many different types of people. It’s a place where folks from all walks of life find each other, and often learn a bit about themselves, too,” says O’Connor. “It also mirrors the story of Edmonton. Like so much of our city, we grew from a group of entrepreneurial artists and community members to become among the top Fringe Festivals world-wide. In so many ways, we continue in that grassroots spirit. For example, each year, we ask the community to help us choose a fun theme for the Festival. This past year, we had nearly 600 submissions! We thrive not only in the community’s creative engagement, but also through their support. More than 1,000 volunteers help us execute the Festival each year, providing 24,851 hours of service (that’s more than two years, 10 months)!”
It’s safe to say the Fringe is a blockbuster event. Last year’s audience of 800,000+ purchased enough tickets to earn the artists more than $1.15 million, and 25 per cent of all the performances were sold out.
“Fringing is about taking chances. If you’ve never been, it’s essentially a smorgasbord of opportunities,” says O’Connor. “We have outdoor performances and buskers, three beer and wine patios, live music, a KidsFringe area, and about every type of food imaginable. Mix that with more than 1,600 indoor theatre performances across all genres to choose from – well, let’s just say there’s no way you won’t discover something to love!
“Sometimes the choices can be overwhelming, though, so we created the Randomizer. If you go to our website (fringetheatre.ca) beginning Aug 8 (when tickets go on sale), you’ll find a button that, when pressed, will randomly suggest a show for you to see. Our shows purposefully keep ticket prices low (average $12), so it’s fun to take a chance on a performance. We also have daily discounts. Each day, a special selection of performances for that day are announced at a 50 per cent off discount–another great way to take a chance on a show.”
Edmonton is in no danger of losing its Festival City moniker. As Nicole Poirier, director of civic events & festivals, City of Edmonton, explains, “Edmonton prides itself on having the facilities, the people to organize world-class festivals and events, and the volunteers and fans to support them.”
She continues, “With more than 850 festivals and events annually, hosting events is second nature to Edmonton. Triathlon, curling, track and field, figure skating, hockey, football, basketball, diving, swimming, soccer: the list of national and world championships that have been held in Edmonton and organized by local volunteers is impressive. There is also the Deep Freeze Festival, Ice on Whyte, Flying Canoe Volant, Silver Skate Festival, the Sikh Parade, the Pride Parade & Festival, The Works Art & Design Festival, Whyte Avenue Art Walk, Cariwest Parade & Festival, EPCOR River Fest, Dragon Boat Festival, Latin Festival, Edmonton Marathon, Kaleido Family Arts Festival, Santa’s Parade of Lights, and many, many more!
“The rest of the world is taking notice! Last year, Edmonton was awarded 8th place in the 2017 Around the Ring’s World’s Top Sports Cities – the only Canadian city on the Top 10 list, placing alongside London and Beijing for the second year in a row. Edmonton was also the only North American city ranked in the top 20 of Sportcal’s Global Sports Cities 2017 Index.
Poirier notes that being the Festival City is more than just having a good time.
“Hosting events helps to create unique and awesome experiences for our citizens and visitors, which increases citizen engagement and pride. These events showcase the welcoming nature of Edmontonians, heighten the volunteer opportunities in our city, and foster relationships between the people who call our city home and visitors from around the world.
“Edmonton is a world-class city with something to enjoy at every turn and in every season. Our city’s festivals and events offer a calendar packed with artistic, sporting, theatrical, and cultural celebration. Hosting events leaves a lasting impression on the city and our citizens, from memories to programs and buildings. We love to share our passion for festivals with the world, which has helped to put Edmonton on the world map as a tourism destination.”
Sometimes Edmonton gets caught up in the minutiae of our boom and bust cycles, which politician is doing what, and the most recent scathing news story that draws our ever-present ire. It’s important to also remember the things that make Edmonton great: our history, diverse culture, arts and music scene, love of all things sports – and it’s imperative to get out there and celebrate Edmonton’s many faces as one cohesive community. In the Capital City, there is always a reason, and a festival or event, to help you celebrate good times all year long.