News and Articles

We own these streets, we are our festivals

Image courtesy of Freepik
August 3, 2021

Rossen Lee (she/her) is a 2021 Social Connectedness Fellow working with The Stop Community Food Centre, with whom she has recently released a podcast titled Our Concrete Garden, available on SoundcloudSpotify, and Apple Podcasts. Rossen is a recent graduate from Ryerson University with a BASc. in Nutrition and Food, as well as a certificate in Food Security Studies. Having spent her childhood as a settler in Hamilton, Ontario, Rossen is passionate about building communities, supporting marginalized populations, and researching urban food security. With her career, she hopes to build a more sustainable, affordable, and socially just Toronto for all. Guided by love and friendship, Rossen believes that human compassion and social resiliency can overcome anything.

In 2020, the Canadian National Exhibition, based in Toronto, Ontario, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, something that has only occurred once prior because of WWII. Recently, it was announced that the CNE will remain cancelled for 2021, a financial blow so devastating that this second consecutive closure may bring forth its permanent cancellation after 142 years of operation. The legendary national fair features live performances, food, shopping, industry showcases, and an entertainment midway which includes carnival attractions. The 2020 closure of the massive 18-day tourism event resulted in a loss of $128 million to the province, and approximately $35 million in operation fees including tickets and corporate sponsorships.

Financial reports are easy to conceptualize with large monetary figures. However, it is more difficult to express the nuance in how these events act as a gathering point and beacon of joy for our communities. The CNE has had an impact that has stretched across geographical borders and countless generations in its 142 year-long legacy. Toronto is heavily reliant on CNE tourism, not only for its own reputation and economic gain, but for the province and country’s benefit as well. Above all, the CNE and other similar festivals and exhibitions serve as key physical spaces for promoting social connectedness, bringing communities together.

If Canada’s biggest exhibition can’t make it out of the pandemic, how can we save our local celebrations as another festival season is cancelled in Toronto? 

For some communities, these gatherings are a means for survival. Passerbyers may recognize Toronto Pride celebrations as a fun rainbow-clad parade of LGBTQ2S+ folks in June, but the inception of pride festivities began as a civil rights uprising in response to police brutality and discrimination– particularly against Black and transgender people– at Stonewall Inn in New York City. The parade itself was conceived from these riots as a demand for sexual and gender minorities to be seen and heard. It also notably hosted Black, feminist, and  LGBTQ2S+ activists united together for a common goal of liberation. The Toronto LGBTQ2S+ community has seen its own share of conflict, including the infamous bathhouse raids and even more recently, police distrust further fueled by anti-gay biases during the investigation of a serial killer in Toronto’s Gay Village. Pride is not just an excuse to party, it’s more than that. It’s a celebration of perseverance, an opportunity to pay respects to the LGBTQ2S+ rights pioneers before us, and a space to find affirming and like-minded peers. For those taking the last GO-bus back to their hometowns, hiding their rainbow pins, and removing their makeup in the transit station’s washroom, sometimes Pride is the only time they can be themselves. 

Not only are these festivities a place for personal enjoyment and expression, but they are opportunities to share with the greater public as well. Two notable Toronto examples would be the Salsa on St. Clair and Taste of Danforth, which showcase Latin and Greek cultures respectively in their named neighbourhood boroughs. Being hosted in their cultural neighbourhoods like Greektown assists in legitimizing them as influential communities within the city. Additionally, the heavy foot traffic of visitors benefits many of the small businesses in the neighbourhoods typically owned by people from the hosting community. The platform of a festival also provides a vast opportunity to share prideful elements of their culture. Especially in the example of Salsa on St. Clair, which includes Latin dancing, music, arts, and food. These grandiose events provide a veil of comfort for people who may not be familiar with these groups to learn and appreciate them even in these more prolific contexts. Similarly, these groups often have a history or present-reality of discrimination, and these local spotlights help towards the embracing of these communities. 

Festivals act as portals to escape our everyday routines in order to have fun and appreciate our city and our neighbours. The connections that are developed from having these personal, proximal, and oftentimes spectacular events are stepping points towards becoming more tolerant and informed about other people that may be different from us. They invite us outside of our homes to explore our city. Though these closures from COVID-19 demonstrate how delicately these events operate. City councilor Mike Layton and his team have proposed an initiative called Save the CNE, calling for higher levels of government funding in order to sustain the event for another year that has already garnered more than 22 000 signatures on an online petition. Residents, and all others concerned about how the long-term loss of festivals and other events will degrade social connectedness, should come together to spread the word about how integral these gatherings are to the fabric of our communities.