‘Extremely excited for the comeback’: Organizers, volunteers ready for return to in-person festivals this summer in Manitoba

When a rainbow flag is raised at Winnipeg City Hall Friday morning, it will signal the first in-person Pride Winnipeg Festival in three years.

When COVID-19 began to circulate in Manitoba in 2020, it unleashed a cacophony of restrictions, cancellations and postponements for the province’s beloved summer festival season. Many pivoted to virtual events, others scaled down and some offered attendees a hybrid model.

Back in 2020, Pride Winnipeg was preparing to host the second-ever national Fierté Canada Pride Festival. Organizers shifted gears to offer a virtual format when the virus set off a wave of lockdowns.

Jenn Rands, the festival’s vice-president of community engagement said the change presented a big challenge to staff, but was needed to offer its community some way to commemorate Pride Month.

“Pride celebrations started out as protests, a fight for equality and equity and equal rights. Today, the celebrations are just as important, just to remind us that we are in fact a community,” she said.

Thousand of Winnipeggers hit the streets Sunday for the annual Pride Winnipeg Rally and Parade. (Source: Daniel Timmerman/CTV Winnipeg)

Still, Rands said folks are eager to get back to an in-person event. Rands herself has been with Pride Winnipeg for three years, and this will mark her first in-person festival.

“Especially after going through the last two years of uncertainty, I really think this is going to be good for our community, just to get everybody back together,” she said.

ORGANIZERS NAVIGATE FLUCTUATING PANDEMIC LANDSCAPE

The Winnipeg Fringe Festival also traded in its live performances, snaking lineups and outdoor music, clowning and dance for a virtual model in 2020 and 2021.

Executive producer Chuck McEwen said a return to in-person in 2022 is welcome, but not without its challenges.

“I don’t call it a post-COVID world. I call it a COVID-transition year,” he explained. “All along the planning stages, we’ve had to continue to adapt as things have developed. So, right now, I think we’re in a good spot.”

Many festivals like the Fringe began planning last year at a time when COVID-19 restrictions were still in place. McEwen said international vaccine travel policies also influenced some out-of-country acts. It also spured the creation of the festival’s own policy, requiring all indoor performers, volunteers and staff to be fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, McEwen said the Fringe is in the midst of recruiting volunteers for the July festival, which is currently tracking slightly behind normal application levels. In 2019, the festival had just over 800 volunteers. This year, their goal is to sign up 500 to 600 folks eager to sell tickets, pass out programs and usher audiences.

“The festival is a bit smaller, so we won’t need as many volunteers, but we would love to have our full complement, if at all possible,” he said.

VOLUNTEERS EAGER TO WELCOME BACK AUDIENCES

After its own three-year pause, Folklorama executive director Teresa Cotroneo said the significance of this year’s festival has become increasingly apparent. She said many organizations behind its pavilions continue to grapple with the fallout from the pandemic.

“The number of pavilions people are used to seeing has decreased somewhat,” she said.

“A number of our ethnocultural communities are having a slower uptake when it comes to re-engaging their volunteers and haven’t been able to bring in special guests or special talent from different countries that they actually use to put their pavilion together.”

READ MORE: Province announces funding to bolster Folklorama pavilions, lower some admission costs

Still, Cotroneo said as volunteers are hard at work preparing for this summer’s festival, the excitement is already palpable.

“They’re extremely excited for the comeback,” she said. “It’s a long road to get to a festival. It’s a year-round thing, and the volunteers who put in the work are tremendous. So for us to actually be able to get together in person and see that energy is exceptional.”

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