When fair’s fair

The fairs, agricultural exhibitions, fowl suppers and rural sports days have stopped this year in the name of safety.

Many of these traditions were carried on through wars, financial and farming collapses and might be thought of as footnotes in the tales of Canadian culture. But that underestimates their role in rural society, where isolationism is a fact of life and a little structure and few social deadlines helps ensure that secular and non-familial relationships continue.

Survival for many of these events beyond COVID-19 will require more than local imaginations and volunteer labour; it will need a pooled financial effort by all of us. So far, the buck-passing between federal programs and departments has yielded nothing.

Rural identities are anchored upon regional and local social histories. Often families remain part of these communities long after most of them have moved away to urban centres, which can be hours or days away. For those who remain, and those who make annual pilgrimages to rural happenings, fairs and agricultural exhibitions help keep the cultural ties alive and allow histories to remain vibrant and real.

Most of the 800 or so rural events held in the country are run by volunteers or a few paid staff members and most wouldn’t exist without local commitments and the money they raise during the activities.

This self-perpetuating cycle has kept North America’s oldest rural fair rolling along for 254 years in Hants County, Nova Scotia. But whether it’s older than Canada or a recent event, such as Morden Man.’s Corn and Apple Festival, conjured up originally as a Centennial project in 1967, the events do more financially than break-even in rural communities, and generate nearly $3 billion in activity each year.

These events, often organized by agricultural societies and local fair boards, play a key role in helping to keep community stores, restaurants and hotels alive.

Programs designed to support businesses and other cultural agencies are failing these rural icons. Canada’s Emergency Wage Subsidy doesn’t cover many of the 10,700 seasonal jobs, short-term contracts and honorariums, nor do they cover municipal government-owned organizations, as are many times the case for fairs.

Regional relief recovery funds and Community Futures don’t work with non-profits. The Emergency Business Account loan is aimed at profitable endeavors. The exhibition and fair organizations often haven’t gone to the federal heritage department for support in the past, so aren’t recognized now.

Agricultural fairs and other small exhibitions have an association that has been approaching government on their behalf. The Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions has been seeking a relatively paltry $49 million for the 733 smaller organizations, more than 400 of which are located in Western Canada, but its requests have fallen between the federal bureaucracy’s cracks.

While not likely intentional, the gaps in the COVID-19 recovery mission are likely created by a variety of government departments thinking these largely volunteer organizations must be someone else’s responsibility.

CAFE is also seeking $25 million for the 10 largest groups, such as Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition.

Because these non-profit groups have reoccurring costs that are tied to facilities, basic staff and other infrastructure and have no methods of mitigating these expenses in the face of zero income this year, their survival is a stake.

More than 5,000 events have already been cancelled.

Without support from all Canadians many of these important elements of rural culture and history will close forever or be deeply impaired.

For every dollar fairs earn, nearly $5 more is spent into local economies as a result of their activities. Few public investments, other than ag research, provide returns of this scale in rural Canada.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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