A big thank you to those who roll up their sleeves every year to make the magic happen
In preparation for the celebration of the 40th North Country Fair, we are compiling an archive scrapbook of newspaper clippings and other memorabilia dating back to 1979. A prevailing theme of many of the articles is the level of volunteer commitment since North Country Fair’s inception. Thousands of people of all ages from all walks of life across the province and beyond have given love and effort to this long-standing event. So at this time, during National Volunteer Appreciation Week, how fitting to recognize North Country Fair as a true example of what a collective volunteer effort can achieve.
North Country Fair began as a dream to celebrate the Summer Solstice: an age-old concept of gathering for the longest day of the year. As the aspiring back-to-the-landers and co-founders of the event came to appreciate, the sun played an important role in homesteading life in Northern Alberta in the 70s. The Summer Solstice meant new growth, greater warmth, more daylight hours. What better time to make music, sing, dance and celebrate in what was often the harsh reality of surviving the elements.
The first North Country Fair was in 1979, co-sponsored by the Joussard Sports Association. Some of the music was from Pied Pear, Connie Caldor, Mike Giles, Ma Fletcher, Lyall Steel and Shannon Twofeathers. Theatre provided a large part of the entertainment.
A fishing derby – with a prize for the largest perch, pickerel and pike! – canoe and foot races, a horseshoe tournament, Sunday pancake breakfast and various music workshops rounded out the weekend. According to the history books, over 1000 people attended making it the largest outdoor celebration in Joussard’s history.
The early gatherings continued in venues along Lesser Slave Lake, in the hamlets of Joussard and Faust, until 1983—the year North Country fairgoers became resigned to the fact that rain might very well be a part of the experience. An excerpt from the Lakeside Pioneer history book published in 1986 states:
“The 1983 North Country Fair will be remembered by many as ‘Mud City’ on Joussard Point. A fourteen-hour downpour Saturday night left close to 800 people stranded on a point of sand, separated from the road by 100 yards of Joussard gumbo. Seven local farmers spent eight hours pulling vehicles through the mud and many left with an unforgettable experience of country living.”
This obviously went above and beyond the usual volunteer devotion, to a huge level of community effort and support.
From 1984 to 1989, North Country Fair was held at Spruce Point Park, further east on the lake by the village of Kinuso. Then, from 1990 to 2004, it was held in Joussard’s Mission Park with adjoining Lakeshore Campground and Chancelet Park for camping.
It didn’t seem to matter where the Fair was held or whether it was rain or shine; more families gathered each year to greet old friends, experience music from around the world and celebrate the Solstice.
Year after year, volunteers were there to make it happen: adapting to the growth, dealing with the logistics of infrastructure in rented facilities, doing whatever was needed. After much deliberation, it was decided to move to a permanent home in the Driftpile Valley for the 2005 Fair. This marked a time in our history where volunteers were especially crucial, as this required a truly herculean effort to move all of our belongings from the Joussard site (where we had resided for 15 years) to a farm pasture that needed to be transformed to host the masses. Faced with such a daunting task, and one of the rainiest, muddiest years ever, only North Country volunteers could pull off such a feat and make it “best ever”.
Part of the magic of North Country Fair has always been that the sun barely sets, just dips below the horizon of what for many years was the waters of Lesser Slave Lake and now the forest and river of Driftpile Valley. Now imagine musicians, both renowned and aspiring, who not only grace the stages, but participate in workshops and play around campfires till the wee hours of the morn. Add an abundance of colour, art, sculpture, crafting, health and wellness workshops, children’s activities, reverence for Earth, and another part of the magic is revealed. The ties that bind it all together and hold it dear are volunteers.
Since 2005, infrastructure that was once portable has become more permanent. In addition to the main stage area, three other stages have been created to host various presentations. The Reed Playground, a children’s wonderland of climbing, swinging, sliding and crafts, has its own stage for family music and fun.
Two other stages can be found nestled in wooded areas. Shelters have been built for picnicking. An electrical grid, with solar panel supplementation has been established. With the help of a municipal grant, roads were made to campground areas by the Driftpile River, which allows swimming, canoeing, tubing and water play. All created through volunteer vision and effort.
Hosting over 5,000 people in one place for four or five days is not necessarily easy. It takes incredible effort and organization to ensure not only that the show goes on, so to speak, but that basic needs are taken care of and a good time is had by all. North Country Fair relies on over 650 volunteers to contract and schedule artists, arrange travel and accommodation, book food booths and craft vendors, set up and decorate venues, schlep various-sized instruments to four different stages at scheduled times, prepare campground areas, arrange for potable water, portapotties, garbage clean-up and recycling, direct traffic, provide safety and security, and ultimately, care for this beautiful piece of land. The fully-equipped outdoor industrial kitchen is a bustling beehive of activity during the Fair, feeding over 500 people; performers, guests, organizers and their families. Many volunteers attend meetings and workbees year-round, planning, problem solving, networking, then scheduling and supervising yet more volunteers to accomplish all that is to be done each year. It truly is a marvel.
So thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to all North Country Fair volunteers. Know that you have shaped and nurtured this labour of love. It is what it is because of you. Let us commemorate the spirit of community and sharing that has woven its way into the fabric of this long-ago-imagined Solstice celebration. Multi generations will once again experience the magic that is North Country Fair.
Words can hardly convey the gratitude for all who have given so selflessly to keep this going for 40 years!
Namaste. Hope to see you in a few weeks!
It takes about 650 volunteers to make the North Country Fair a good experience for the 5,000 or so paying guests.