TORONTO — Any other year, the lakeside grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition would soon be preparing for the summer spectacle’s array of amusement rides, carnival games, thumping summer music jams and greasy food temptations.
But this year, the building that houses the CNE’s “SuperDogs” show and ”Rising Star” talent competition is reserved as a hospital overflow site in the event COVID-19 infections overwhelm health-care providers.
Another venue typically used for the charity casino and farm exhibits has been converted to an emergency homeless shelter. Meanwhile, ongoing limits on gatherings and physical distancing rules show little sign of abating.
This summer, the ongoing threat of COVID-19 will dim the lights of one of Canada’s biggest and longest-running summer draws for the first time since the Second World War.
The Canadian National Exhibition Association said Tuesday the cancellation was “the right decision during this critical time to protect the health of all Canadians.”
“We felt that this was the right time to do this to protect the health and safety of not only our patrons, but also of our staff, of our vendors and our artists,” said association president John Kiru.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford broke the news earlier in the day at a televised press conference in which he reminisced about his own treasured memories at the family-friendly cavalcade of attractions, which include concerts and agricultural exhibits.
“These are some of the sacrifices that we’re facing as a society,” said Ford.
“It’s part of our culture here, part of our heritage going back over 100 years, so I’m going to miss it,” he added.
And with that, the CNE joined a slew of large public events that have been sidelined by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Also cancelled in previous weeks: Toronto’s Pride Parade and Caribbean Carnival, the Calgary Stampede, live Canada Day events in Ottawa and music festivals across the country.
Aside from being an economic blow to the various vendors, employees and associated businesses, losing these annual events is a blow to the social and cultural fabric that make up cities across Canada, said geography and planning professor Matti Siemiatycki.
“They become the touchstones, these points in the calendar that you build your year around,” said Siemiatycki, interim director of the University of Toronto research institution, School of Cities.
“The sense of loss of that, I think, in a moment where we’re really experiencing all sorts of different types of losses is really just another reminder of how profound this pandemic has been and how unusual this moment is.”
This is the first time since 1946 that all events at the 142-year-old fair have been cancelled.
The CNE was closed from 1942-45 during the Second World War when the site was transformed into a training and recruitment centre. It remained closed the following year to allow time for the military to move out.
In 2003, a blackout that affected parts of northeastern North America closed the exhibition for four days in August.
This year’s 18-day event had been slated to run Aug. 21 to Sept. 7.
The CNE is one of the largest fairs in North America and attracts more than 1.4 million visitors each year. As many as 150,000 people fill the grounds on the final Saturday of the fair, said organizers.
The CNE association estimates its annual economic impact at $128 million for the province of Ontario and $93 million for the Greater Toronto Area.
It employs more than 5,000 young people, involves more than 700 vendors and exhibitors and features more than 1,000 performers and entertainers, said executive director Darrell Brown.
Annual highlights include the Canadian International Air Show, bandshell concerts and an array of food including wild concoctions that last year included tortilla-wrapped fried Snickers bars and pickle lemonade.
The air show, which usually takes place over Lake Ontario on Labour Day weekend, was also cancelled. Brown said the CNE is looking into virtual events, such as streaming concerts from past bandshell performances.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said the decision to cancel was correct, despite the economic and social loss to the city. He suggested the enforced pause will give organizers a chance to reimagine the fair.
“I’d like to see something that goes back to the roots of the original CNE,” Tory said at a news conference.
“(It) was a world exposition of Canadian talent in agriculture, in technology, in science … there’s no reason we can’t put on a globally admired and wonderful attraction of the calibre of our film festival at the CNE.”
Kiru, who’s also the executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, is behind a host of smaller cultural events throughout the city including the popular Taste to the Danforth food festival in Greektown.
He said the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed the landscape in big ways, and he expected some of the city’s smaller events and fairs would be unable to rebound.
The CNE, though, is committed to returning when public health officials greenlight large events, he said, while acknowledging that those restrictions are expected to be among the last measures to be lifted.
“We all look forward to when we can come back and turn those lights back on,” said Kiru.
“It’s a new reality and we’ll adapt, as best as we can. We know that these festivals and fairs, et cetera, are an important component of supporting the economic and social well-being of the neighbourhoods that they take place in.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2020.
— with files from Michelle McQuigge
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press