The Festival website provides the following description: “Servus Heritage Festival 2014 marks the 39th annual edition of this premier three-day showcase of Canada’s vibrant multicultural heritage. We will feature 60 pavilions representing over eighty-five cultures from all over the world. Sample culinary delicacies, see creative performances, shop for crafts, artwork, and clothing, or chat with people eager to tell you a little about their cultural roots and their present-day communities in Canada.”
This is not what you’ll encounter. The Festival no longer has much, if anything, to do with either heritage or culture. For the last three years’ running, its quality and relevance have been in significant decline. Presentations of a culture are not to be found, and the heritage tents continue to shrink in number, size, and content, most of which is astoundingly uninteresting. Even the few photos that remain on the tent walls are pitifully shopworn and painfully irrelevant to any interest in cultural information. Even what remains is overmuch déjà vu.
The stalls that showcase and sell cultural goods seem largely to have purchased their goods from the same three or four warehouses. Even the fine textiles that used to be in evidence in clothing for sale have disappeared. What is left are trinkets. Baby llama figures from anywhere in South America; mass-produced Masai bracelets from anywhere in Africa; wooden carvings from anywhere in Asia, with last year’s scratches still upon them and bearing new gold stickers of country of origin. Then there are the quiet, cultural clashes: Irish wall hangings in the Borneo pavilion; plastic Japanese samurai swords in the Chinese; but very few individuals willing to discuss their cultural heritage and its relation to Canada—markedly different from merely two years ago. One man who did so, while knowledgeably appreciative of what Canada has and offers, bemoaned the reduction of international presence that the federal government has pressed on with. A woman quite clear about cultural relationships was not from Canada, but visiting from England. Her sister promised her a trip to Banff and Jasper if she helped her work the Festival gig.
The “creative performances” are fewer and often of diminished quality. The use of amplification is now so severe that it is unsafe. Presenters seem unaware that greater amplification distorts and reduces singularity and attention, and that lower sound levels benefit them. Most of the individual artists, such as those from Congo, from Guatemala, seem to have been squeezed out.
The main focus now is the sale of food. Food facilities have expanded, and every grill in the Capital Region seems to have been commandeered. Food is generally fried and fatty, exorbitantly priced, and unappealing. Many preparations are indistinguishable from many others in any cultural sense. An increased homogeneity pushes on through the smoke.
There are some telling gaps in representation. For example, there’s nothing from the Commonwealth democracies: the United Kingdom (except for Wales), Australia, or New Zealand; or from several major European cultures, such as those of Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, or Iceland; much of Africa; and, all of North America—Mexico, the United States, and Canada.
A heterogenous and multicultural display of mankind presents itself amongst those attending, inclusive of peculiarly matched couples, near nakedness next to Muslim dress, panoplies of disfiguring tattoos, and obesity of incredible dimension. Like a number of festivals in Edmonton, the point has become more having the festival than presenting the point of having it.
However, the Festival is free, and so it provides access to all, and this is a significant attribute. Kudos once again must be given to the Edmonton Transit System for its excellent transportation service. So, if you wish to watch people, at your ease, this is worth the going. Buy food tickets to donate them to the Food Bank, which converts them back to cash to purchase food to feed those who cannot afford to eat.