Alberta: Rodeos brace for an uncertain season

Excerpt from The Canadian Press By ALESSIA PASSAFIUME

For Lynn Phillips, the Ponoka Stampede feels more like a family reunion than a rodeo.

“Even though it’s big, it still has that small-town flair,” said Mr. Phillips, who has been Ponoka’s rodeo announcer for more than 30 years. “It’s really unlike any other.”

The Ponoka Stampede is one of the longest-standing traditions in the town of about 7,200 people, located about an hour’s drive south of Edmonton. First held in the 1936, the event now typically attracts about 80,000 fans over the Canada Day long weekend.

The event was cancelled last year – one of dozens of rodeos across Western Canada ranging from the world-renowned Calgary Stampede to smaller-scale rodeos and agricultural fairs that fell victim to public-health restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Organizers of those events are once again facing an uncertain summer after Alberta and much of the country were forced back into widespread shutdowns because of the pandemic’s third wave. Recently declining case numbers have fuelled optimism about this summer, prompting Premier Jason Kenney to promise that large outdoor events would be able to return in some form – if infections and hospital admissions are held at bay.

Even if public-health measures allow rodeos to take place, another challenge is the Canada-U.S. border, which has been closed to non-essential travel for more than a year. The closing has been extended to June 21.

The possibility this year’s rodeo in Ponoka could be cancelled is “devastating,” Mr. Phillips said.

“When you cancel an event like [Ponoka] for two years, that chain is broken.”

Rodeos and agricultural fairs are important economic and cultural engines for the small communities that play host to them. Many of these events rely heavily on community volunteers and act as a homecoming, bringing together generations of folks from the surrounding areas.

When the Ponoka Stampede event was cancelled last year, Bruce Harbin, president of the Ponoka Stampede, said it was “like an economic disaster.”

“The stampede usually puts $80 into the community for every ticket dollar sold,” he said. “There wasn’t any funding raised by the stampede, and the community and local businesses felt it.”

The stampede’s 85th anniversary might look different, Mr. Harbin said. He’s in constant communication with Alberta Health Services, or AHS, looking at “all possibilities” for how the event can operate this year. “If we’re allowed, we’ll be doing it under [AHS] guidelines and with their blessing,” he said. “If anybody had a crystal ball, it would be a lot easier.”

In a typical year, agricultural societies generate around $640-million in spending in the province, Mr. Harbin said. The organizations that were unable to hold fairs last year “only incurred costs.”

Amber L’Heureux, a chuckwagon driver from Glaslyn, Sask., has been on the road for as long as she can remember. With a strong family history in the rodeo scene, last year’s cancelled events were a “shock to the system,” she said.

Ms. L’Heureux said she typically starts training in March, working as a grain farmer simultaneously to fund her passion for the sport.

“As much as it is a lifestyle, you still have to be able to afford it,” said Ms. L’Heureux, who was named the Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association Rookie Driver of the Year 2019 and was the first woman to race professionally in the organization.

A typical season can cost Ms. L’Heureux upward of $50,000 between travelling, training and caring for her horses. With cancelled events in 2020 and the possibility of another lost season caused by the pandemic, she worries sponsors will pull away.

“If people aren’t in the stands, the partnership doesn’t work well,” she said.

Preston Faithful, a chuckwagon driver from Frog Lake First Nation, said his sponsors become like family to him.

To help cover the costs of his season, Mr. Faithful works a “day job” during the off-season, but this doesn’t cover it all. He relies on sponsors to ensure he can have a successful season.

With the decline in the oil industry in the past years, in addition to the pandemic, Mr. Faithful said, “It’s going to be really tough for a lot of [people] this year to get going.”

While this season may look different, Mr. Faithful remains optimistic and said, “There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” citing vaccine rollouts across Canada and the determination of folks involved in the rodeo industry.

Barb Poulsen, spokesperson for the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association, or CPRA, said she’s optimistic about the coming season but, “It all depends on the overall health of the community.”

The CPRA has been working with AHS to develop plans for the season, including strict rules for physical distancing, increased health measures and a mask mandate, along with reduced crowd sizes. “We’re going to have to dig down and work a little harder to come back from [the pandemic],” she said.

While a full 55-event season may not be in the cards, she hopes at least a third of the events can occur, with the Canadian Finals Rodeo completing the season in November.

As for the bumpy road ahead, Ms. Poulsen credits folks in the industry for their “grit and an attitude that they’re not going to be beaten down by the circumstances. We’re going to need it in the days ahead.”

If rodeos can’t run this year, she said, “It’s certainly not going to be from a lack of trying.”

Agricultural societies are feeling the effects of the pandemic, too.

Tim Carson, chief executive officer of the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies, representing nearly 300 agricultural societies in the province, is concerned about the organizations that rely on fairs to raise funds for local initiatives.

“There isn’t necessarily a huge nest egg of rainy day funds,” he said.

Cort Scheer, a saddle bronc rider based in the United States and ranked 20th globally, is itching to travel up north to compete. “Canada is a great place to rodeo,” he said. “It’s one of the prettiest places on Earth with the nicest people in the world.”

The million-dollar question for Mr. Scheer is whether travel restrictions will lighten up in time for the season. “I’m more of a glass-half-full kind of guy,” he said.

Depending on the restrictions, he said he has to make “a smart business decision.” If there are too many obstacles in his way, he said it might not be worth the trip.

“We’re listening every day for news,” Mr. Scheer said. “I give a lot of credit to every committee that is trying to make it work. They’re not just doing it for themselves,” he said. “They’re doing it for the cowboys.”

Kellen Snelgrove, vice-president of the Vermilion Agricultural Society, is working with his team of volunteers to plan this year’s fair – a fair with 115 years of history that takes place at the end of July.

Like other agricultural fairs, the Vermilion Fair raises money for local service clubs, churches and non-profits, and “is almost always their single largest fundraiser for the year,” Mr. Snelgrove said.

Given the current conditions of the pandemic, operations at this year’s fair may look different. The travelling midway may not be allowed to hop from town to town, liquor licences may not be approved because of the closing of all in-person dining, and volunteers may be tasked with contact tracing.

“We want to do what’s best for our community,” Mr. Snelgrove said. “There are just too many question marks.”

Rachel Farr has volunteered at the Vegreville County Fair for more than 20 years. The fair takes place over the August long weekend, averaging more than 11,000 visitors in their community of 5,000 people. This year, they’re aiming for 200.

The volunteers who organize the fair are “thinking outside of the box,” she said, and are looking into scheduling times for families to enjoy the midway to allow for physical distancing. An online trade show and raffle draw are also on the table.

“Hopefully, if people can’t be here in person, we can bring [the fair] online and showcase everything on social media,” Ms. Farr said. “It’s the heart and soul of our community. It’s hard not to have one.”