Celebrating Heritage Online

Rapid Response Fund helps take Alberta’s largest single-day-attended festival online

What began in 1976 to celebrate the cultural diversity, history, and heritages of Alberta has become an Edmonton summer institution. It’s unique and so important that the International Council of Organizations of Folklore Festivals and Folk Arts, an official partner of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), recognizes it as “an intangible cultural asset.”

The Edmonton Heritage Festival attracts 100,000 to 150,000 attendees per day. As such, it is the province’s largest single-day-attended festival. The August long weekend event is a kaleidoscope of cultural performances, goods for sale and culinary experiences.

“For three days, we’re the third-largest city in Alberta,” said Jim Gibbon, the festival’s executive director.

Gibbon had 75 different cultural groups and 214 tents planned, with roughly 4,000 volunteers, counting volunteers from the participating groups and the festival volunteers, and anticipated enthusiastic crowds for the 2020 festival. And then the pandemic arrived.

Clearly, it would not be a festival year like the others.

“It’s pretty hard to socially distance 100,000 people,” he quipped.

It had to be re-envisioned, compiled, and reformatted as an online festival. It wasn’t just about the survival of the festival itself, but addresses the fact that its cultural participants, none of whom are for-profit businesses, sell their goods and food items there. The knock-on effects of losing this festival commerce for these groups was a real concern too.

That’s where a $20,000 Edmonton Community Foundation Rapid Response Fund grant came in. Now the “world’s largest festival of multiculturalism” has a greatly re-imagined online presence to produce a virtual festival, which will even include an online food delivery/pickup program. A lot of work has gone into setting up the website to make sure those groups can sell their products and not lose out on that major revenue stream for their non-profit organizations.

“Edmontonians look forward to the Heritage Festival every year,” Craig Stumpf-Allen, ECF’s Director of Grants and Community Engagement said. “This year, they might not be able to go to the park and enjoy it in person, but we’re happy that this year, they could still enjoy some food and entertainment and celebrate the beauty and excitement of multiculturalism in our community.”

Leading up to the festival, Gibbon has a seven-day countdown planned where new treasure troves of historical documents, photos, and other archival material from past years will be rolled out.

“We have all of our old posters, photographs, and videos,” Gibbon said. And with the move to the online festival format, he has put together a digital museum over the past few months.

“This literally has given us the opportunity to do that,” he added.

Now Gibbon is on the hunt for display space for an actual museum in which he can display four decades of collections. And having to make a major investment in the festival’s past, and figuring out how to deliver an exciting major festival online during COVID-19, might just pay off for the future of celebrating multicultural richness of our city for many years to come.

Learn more about ECF’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic here.