Community festivals rebound, revisit heydays

June 18, 2024

Community festivals can often be overlooked as an economic driver, but if Inverness County’s 2023 summer festival season is any indication, they’ll only grow in importance in coming years.

Nowhere is the economic impact of a community festival felt more than in the village of Inverness, where the Inverness Gathering has been a mainstay for decades. One of the festival volunteers, Jen Ryan, says this year’s event had participants feeling quite nostalgic.

“People kept saying ‘this is the Gathering I remember from my childhood’ and I think that’s what the organizing committee wanted, to bring back something that really held such a special place in our lives,” Jen says.

“Coming out of Covid, people are realizing how important it is to have those opportunities to connect, and to come together to celebrate our community and each other,” she adds, noting that while they foster a sense of community, summer festivals can provide so much more.

Traditions are bringing folks back home

It’s a tradition with the Inverness Gathering to have each day of the festival include an event that’s a major fundraiser for a local organization, like the Monday golf tournament which raises funds for the local arena.

“We’d never dream of messing with that tradition, but we did come up with lots of different ways to add new events, especially for kids and families,” Jen says. “So many people come home for that week, and it’s a nice time for families to get out. We want all these people to feel that connection to our community. Some of those kids really connect with these places and they come back.”

She says it’s that connection to the community that has prompted many who have moved away to return.

“I see it in my own family, the nieces and nephews who came home every summer, they’re moving here, and they’re getting jobs here,” Jen notes.

The same thing is happening in Port Hood with the annual Chestico Days celebration. First-time festival chair Shannon MacLean, who recently returned to the area and is now employed by the Municipality of Inverness County, says she knows many people who continue to travel home during the celebration and get involved in organizing events.

An Drochaid Museum was the site of a traditional milling frolic during this year’s Mabou Ceilidh Days.

“I was away for 30 years, and I always took my vacation for Chestico. I never imagined I’d be chairing it,” Shannon recalls.

But it’s not just ex-pat Port Hooders who are stepping up, as this year’s festival saw a group of about 150 volunteers put together one of the most successful Chestico Days in recent memory.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but Port Hood really showed up,” Shannon says, noting that she got great support from former chairs and former Chestico committee members. “I got a lot of yeses. I thought I’d have to twist a lot of arms, but everyone stepped up.”

Local youth making their mark in community festivals

Shannon says there were so many events that were well-attended, especially the harness racing, but she adds that the most pleasant surprise was seeing local youth get involved the way they did.

There was something for all ages at this year’s Whycocomagh Summer Festival.

“We have a population that’s aging and young people really came out and got involved this year, from age 12 on up,” she says. “So when they say young people don’t participate, well they did for Chestico.”

Youth participation was also very visible in Whycocomagh, where the Whycocomagh Summer Festival was headed up by Michelle MacLean, another first-time organizer.

The Mabou Ceilidh picture frame helped to foster interest in this year’s festival.

She says her committee made the decision early on that they would put a particular focus on local youth, both in terms of planning events they would enjoy and also getting them involved. To that end, they brought back the Youth Ambassador Program, in which Michelle herself participated years ago.

“We brought on about 14 students who were between the ages of 13 and 18, and they worked with us to prepare events, decorate, clean up, and to be there for the leads of the event,” she explains.

“Because of Covid, a lot of the youth didn’t have the opportunity to meet others within the community, so this was an opportunity for the students to get together, work within the community and meet business owners within the village, and to work with us so that we could provide mentorship.”

Michelle says they also made a point of reaching out to surrounding communities and organizations, who were eager to host their own events as part of the festival.

“I grew up in Blues Mills, and I think it’s important to know that the Whycocomagh Summer Festival is also a festival for the surrounding communities as well,” she says. “Whycocomagh Education Centre is where all the students go to school, from Glendale to past Aberdeen, to Skye Glen and Nevada Valley. So I think it’s important to include different organizations that are within that region.”

“It was a real team effort,” she adds. “It really does take a community to pull off something like this.”

Volunteers are a key ingredient

It was that same community effort that breathed new life into Mabou’s Ceilidh Days celebration, according to organizer Simon Beaton, who says a lot of new volunteers came forward to make that festival a resounding success.

Simon says his committee started meeting in the fall of 2022 to begin planning for this year’s festival, which also benefitted from returning to the Canada Day weekend after many years of being held in late July.

One of the keys to this year’s Ceilidh Days was the support of sponsors, who allowed them to offer many events for free, particularly for children.

“People find it hard financially to participate in the festival as a family, so that was a big thing for us,” Simon recalls. “We had so many sponsors, we were able to provide that.”

One of the sponsors, Eastern Fence, even provided free fencing for the outdoor “pig and whistle” held on the main festival grounds. He says Mother Nature, not always a reliable partner to summer festivals, nevertheless played a part in the success of that event.

Hybrid events: both in-person and online

With local summer festivals benefitting from the relaxing of Covid restrictions that hampered celebrations in recent years, one festival may look at returning to offering some events virtually to people who can’t be there in person.

Lisette Aucoin-Bourgeois, coordinator of Chéticamp’s Festival de l’Escaouette, says that 2023 was a very good year for this long-running highlight of the Acadian summer.

“Our gala on Sunday was a full house, it was packed,” she says. “We had more organizations with floats in the parade than we’ve had in years.”

“The reaction we’ve been getting from the community was that it felt like an older Festival de l’Escaouette,” she adds. “It’s four days long, and they’re pretty jam- packed.”

Lisette says organizers are working their way back up from some challenging days during the pandemic. But there was also a lot learned during those years, when the festival held many successful virtual events, which she says could be offered in future celebrations for people who can’t get back to Chéticamp every year.

A sand sculpture competition during Chestico Days provided just one more reason to spend the day at the beach.

“They couldn’t make it home, so they got to see all these musical events and local artists on our Facebook live,” she explains.

Crowds flock to the Musical Coast

Another perennial favourite is the participation of musicians from the Magdalene Islands.

“We always bring musicians here from the Magdalene Islands. There’s a strong connection because of the fishing,” says Lisette. This year, Jocelyn Thériault was centre stage and was accompanied by many musician friends.

Jocelyn is a singer-songwriter and a fisherman who’s well known all across the Maritimes, and for 2 decades or more, his songs have been dear to the hearts of Madelinots (people of his native Magdalene Islands.)
The songs vividly describe moments of the lives of island people and those who make their living from the sea. A well-loved artist in the Chéticamp region, Jocelyn returns the love for local artists like Wendell Roach, Sylvia LeLièvre, André Aucoin, Gérard Romard.

Just another way that community festivals up and down Canada’s Musical Coast bring people together… and we’re already looking forward to the 2024 editions!