Ottawa’s summer festivals return in person

It’s not quite like before COVID times, though. Some did not survive, others are smaller – all working hard to rebuild

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Ottawa festivals are resurfacing after two difficult years of the pandemic.

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Lockdowns and restrictions related to COVID-19 have forced many festivals to cancel, reduce or replace virtual events with live events.

But the city is ushering in a 2022 spring and summer festival season that’s a familiar assortment of concerts and celebrations that stretches into the fall.

Once again there will be music under the stars with hit numbers at Bluesfest and Jazzfest, quirky independent theater at Fringefest, a street party on Preston Street during Italian Week and hip hop under the bridge Bronson at the House of Paint festival.

It’s not quite like before COVID times, though.

Some festivals have not survived, others are smaller or offer a hybrid of live and virtual events. All are working hard to rebuild.

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« The festival industry has been extremely hard hit by what’s happened, » said John Brooman, CEO and President of the Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival. “I know those who come back, it’s not an easy return.

“The festivals are coming back this year, yes. Great! Jazz is back, blues is back. But it’s not like you flip a switch and we go back to 2019. It’s more like a dial over a period of years that will need to be rebuilt. You turn the dial.

For many years, Ottawa has had the distinction of having more festivals per capita than any city in North America. The third weekend in June has traditionally hosted up to nine festivals across the city, he said.

This is not the case this year. But there is still plenty of choice and excitement among organizers and fans.

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The Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival has had part of its dragon boat fleet delivered to Mooney's Bay Marina.  The festival will take place from June 24 to 26.
The Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival has had part of its dragon boat fleet delivered to Mooney’s Bay Marina. The festival will take place from June 24 to 26. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

« We’re back, and we’re excited about it, » Brooman said. After the festival was canceled for two consecutive years, fans can once again watch dragon boat races on the Rideau River at Mooney’s Bay during the day and enjoy free music at night. Festival gigs have been reduced to two nights, but the acts are still top-notch: The Strumbellas and Serena Ryder headline.

For the Midsummer Indigenous Festival, the forced shift to virtual programming for two years had a surprising side benefit.

“We were blown away by our (virtual) audience,” said Trina Mather-Simard, CEO of Indigenous Experiences, the umbrella group organizing the festival.

« We were able to reach such a wider audience across North America. »

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This year’s Summer Solstice from June 21-26 will continue virtual events while resuming live performances on a smaller scale.

« The hybrid makes sense, » she said. “Particularly because our festival is all about raising awareness and sharing our culture. The more people we can connect with, the better.

Fans can enjoy virtual craft and culinary arts workshops — learn how to make a sealskin keychain, for example.

The heart of the festival, the powwow competitions, will be both virtual and live.

The in-person Summer Solstice portion will be about half its pre-pandemic size, with attendance limited to 6,000 to 7,000 people per day, Mather-Simard said.

« There are still mixed reactions, both with the public and with our artists and our elders, about being in really big bands, even outdoors, » she said. « So we thought if we could cut it in half, we could start over with having the event live, but everyone would feel safe.

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« We are outside, we are very scattered, but we are always aware. »

The festival has been more difficult to organize this year because the pandemic has brought a shortage of manpower, especially for cooks, explained Mather-Simard. It has also been more difficult to stock up on supplies such as portable toilets and tents, as some of the businesses that had held festivals have gone bankrupt or moved on to other businesses, she said.

Summer Solstice changed location from Vincent Massey Park to an old dude ranch on West Hunt Club Road.

The festival is always free but places must be reserved in advance. (Parking is paid, but shuttles are provided.)

« Hopefully those who look forward to it every year will buy some time, » Mather-Simard said. “We probably won’t be able to welcome everyone in person, as in the past. That’s the unfortunate part, but that’s part of the reality of rebooting in this new world.

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Festival-goers go to the entrance of the Escapade Music Festival held at Parc RCGT last summer.
Festival-goers go to the entrance of the Escapade Music Festival held at Parc RCGT last summer. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

Ottawa Chamberfest takes a similar approach, with a mix of indoor, outdoor and live concerts.

The province has dropped most COVID-19 public health measures, but some festivals are adding their own.

The Ottawa Fringe Festival, for example, requires theatergoers to wear a mask and show proof that they are vaccinated.

« A lot of people in our community are happy that we’re keeping these COVID protocols in place, » said Taylor Vardy, festival marketing and communications manager. « It’s also for the safety of the artists, for the safety of the public and for the volunteers as well, to know that they are safe coming to work. »

The June festival celebrating independent theater will feature 41 shows, down slightly from the usual 50.

« It’s a bit smaller because we’re coming back from the pandemic, » Vardy said. The festival was canceled in 2020 and aired a digital version last year.

One festival that’s back bigger than ever is Escapade, the celebration of electronic dance music at TD Place in Lansdowne Park.

It was canceled in 2020 and held a smaller event last year.

This year, Getaway has grown from two to three days and is expecting 65,000 fans, nearly double pre-pandemic attendance, festival director Ali Shafaee said.

“Everyone is thrilled to be back at full scale,” he said.

Tickets sold out in February.

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