CANMORE – The Canmore Folk Music Festival won’t go ahead this summer due to concerns for public health and community gatherings contributing to the rapid spread of COVID-19 variants.
“We're completely heartbroken,” said Sue Panning, festival director, on Monday (April 5).
“The latest trends in the variants and the uncertainties around vaccination rollouts, it's making it really difficult to move forward for a smaller organization like ourselves.”
In the months leading up to the expected annual festival lineup announcement, organizers communicated with Alberta Health Services (AHS), government representatives, and with other outdoor festivals to come up with safety protocols.
Working against permit deadlines was a primary constraint. Panning reported the critical decision date was March 31 and any time beyond then is considered “really dicey for putting on a good quality event.”
“When we talked to AHS and to different government officials, it didn't look like we could actually get any permitting in place until probably May," she said.
"Now with the current trends of the variants, and with some uncertainty around the vaccine rollouts, we might not even know in May whether we would get a permit.”
The festival annually hosts a roster of over 30 musicians across four stages on the August long weekend, featuring unique food vendors and artisans.
“The workshop stages partner up eclectic mixings of musicians from disparate and diverse backgrounds, often resulting in that ephemeral ‘lightning in a bottle’ sound that will never be re-created twice,” says the festival’s website.
The Stan Rogers Memorial Stage in Centennial Park is a feature outdoor main stage, where attendees bring their own seating to the green space in a close proximity community setting.
“The No. 1 thing is public safety and our long-term financial health. This was going to be our 44th year, and we want to stay in it for the long haul,” said Panning.
The festival was previously cancelled in 2020. Organizers subsequently produced a modified version of the event, Almost Folk Festival, made available online for free and on radio stations.
Panning confirmed there are plans to feature online material in lieu of the open-air festival, although there are no definite acts at this time.
“We're going to shift gears to planning something else, to have some meaningful audience and volunteer engagement and to get artists and technicians working," she said.
“We want to take a look at what the audience is thinking right now. Lots of people are really fatigued from looking at things online and we definitely want to do something meaningful. We're really in the brainstorming phase right now.
“We promise we will do something. What that is, we don't know yet.
No pre-emptive ticket sales were made.
“Just given what we learned last year, we decided to hold off ... Everything’s been just too up in the air.”
The festival has been an annual event in Canmore since 1978 and is the longest-running folk music festival in Alberta.
It’s no secret live music venues and performers have struggled since the pandemic began in 2020. The Canadian Live Music Association reported last year that up to 70 per cent of venues across the country would permanently close without additional financial support from various levels of government.
“The live music ecosystem is in dire straits. From artists, technicians, lighting [techs], venues, ushers, agents, managers, you name it, there are so many people behind the scenes," Panning said.
“People, if they love live music, just do what you can do to support live music as it comes back. I am hopeful that there might be some smaller things going on.
“Certainly, we hope that everything will be back to normal. We can have one great big party, a great folk festival, and we'll certainly do something special for both accounts. In the after-times, we can gather and we'll definitely do our best to put on a really amazing show."
Panning said volunteers and community members expressed their own “heartbreak” at the news, but understand the circumstances.
“Of course, they're heartbroken, but it's definitely the right thing to do," she said. "It feels like this is the right decision and with public safety in mind, the last thing we would want is some kind of a super-spreader event. Our festival is all about community."
Over 550 volunteers and more than 35 coordinators organize the festival throughout the year.