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Arts & Culture(Archives)


Summer in McMurray: A Strong Festival Tradition

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“I HAVE A SOFT SPOT IN MY HEART FOR THIS place,” said Janice O’Leary as we drove by the construction site for Jubilee Plaza, at the corner of Hardin and Main, the location for many future festivals and activities in the heart of our city centre.

“This is where I fell in love with Fort McMurray.”

She was referencing one of her first summers in town, over 10 years ago, when she hung out at the interPLAY Festival at this spot, enjoying the creative magic, unexpected surprises and throngs of people.

Festivals and summer arts events provide experiences that connect people to the community and each other. The importance of their existence is unquestionable, which is why so many people are focusing their efforts on creating new events and a new summer festival of arts, building on lessons learned and many fond memories.

As a parent, I have seen our sons grow up, juxtaposed against the backdrop of street performers, musical acts, roving performers and talent shows. One summer, clowns and mascots completely freaked out my younger son, the next, they were his best friends. Once carefully clinging closely, both Dylan and Ben are now fiercely independent, and choosing what plays they want to see and attractions to visit.

When you’re producing outdoor summer events and festivals, you are always at the mercy of the weather. In 18 years, I have seen it all: scorching hot days when people were passing out from the heat, wind that lifted tents off the ground, lightning, torrential rain, and even a few snowflakes in the summer of 2004 when Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans sang for a small but resilient crowd on Franklin Avenue.

Even during the rainiest years, there were unforgettable moments, like the year The Nylons did a spontaneous performance in the hotel lobby after their interPLAY show got canceled. A highlight for my son Ben was getting called up on stage at the Big Spirit Festival in 2012 to play his harmonica with the Juno Award-winning Aboriginal group, Digging Roots. It was pouring rain, with 3 or 4 people in the crowd. By the time he was done, 10 or 20 additional people showed up. It was an unforgettable memory.

There are many beloved elements of summer festivities: children getting their faces painted, bouncy castles, carnival food, music, mascots, markets and more. No matter the festival, the one constant is fun. Smiles abound when people of all ages get to take a few hours away from the routine and the ordinary to enjoy a summer festival.

The summer of 2014 will offer a number of great opportunities to get out and enjoy events. Canada Day festivities, YMM ArtFest, RCMP Musical Ride, and Sustainival should be on your radar, as should the Fort McMurray International Film Festival and a series of arts-related events and attractions that will take place at the Keyano Arts Centre on the three days formerly known as the interPLAY weekend. Looking ahead to 2015, Jubilee Plaza will be a great spot to enjoy myriad events and celebrations. The Western Canada Summer Games will roll into town and offer a stellar set of attractions, many of which will be hosted at SMS Equipment Stadium at Shell Place.

We have a long history of great summer staples, from Blueberry Festival to CanadaROCKS, from Mid-Summer Madness to SummersEnd, the names and the shapes of the events may change, but the spirit of fun, anticipation, and sense of adventure will never change. Fort McMurray loves summer festivals and any excuse to get out of the house, enjoy some entertainment and hang out with friends and neighbours.


Russell is a 19 year resident of Wood Buffalo, a community builder, facilitator, social media practitioner, actor, director and artist. He began his Middle Age Bulge blog as a way of capturing his journey to wellness. It has morphed into a daily journal about all aspects of life in the north. Russell works with The United Way of Fort McMurray and co-owns Birdsong Connections with his wife Heather.