`It feels like we never had a pandemic’ — thousands flock to Lilac Festival

Over a hundred thousand Calgarians attended the 32nd annual Lilac Festival. (Photo by Clayton Keim/SAIT)

Festivalgoers crowded 4th Street to see live performances and browse vendors, with crowds reaching pre-pandemic numbers at the 2023 Lilac Festival.

According to the Lilac Festival’s Instagram, over 100,000 people attended the event. With more than 650 various vendors, charities, and community organizations stretched down 4th Street between 12 Avenue S.W. and Elbow Drive, covering a total of 15 city blocks. 

This year’s festival was also expanded from previous years to include additional areas of the city, with the festival branching off from 4th Street to fill parts of 17th Avenue, between 5th Street S.W. and 2nd Street S.W.

This expansion makes the 2023 Lilac Festival the physically largest in its 32-year history.

“I’ve been living in Calgary my whole life, so I’ve known about Lilac Festival for as long as it’s been around,” said Anna Forrester.

This year’s festival demonstrates a desire for a return to large-scale social gatherings, even as the city recovers from the extensive lockdowns necessitated by the global pandemic

“I’m just so happy, “Forrester said. “It’s summer, we should be spending it outside with each other. We shouldn’t be cooped up inside on our phones.”

The festival’s live shows featured a wide variety of performances hailing from Calgary and abroad. Attendees got a chance to listen to live music, see numerous dance numbers and watch acrobatic performances. In attendance were artists such as local pop artist Kaiya Gamble, the En L’air Academy of Dance and Aerial, and the Polanie Polish Song and Dance Association.

The Lilac Festival was cancelled in both 2020 and 2021 due to concerns over the risk of viral transmission from COVID-19.

“I think the lockdown was totally unnecessary,” said Duane Redenbach. “So it’s good that we’re all out,”

In 2022, the Lilac Festival returned, but according to event organizers it was unable to reach pre-pandemic attendance levels, with roughly 80,000 attendees.

Calgary’s Lilac Festival has been a signature event in the city since its origin in 1989 and was held annually until 2022. It was originally created to celebrate the blooming of lilac bushes along 4th Street, with early attendance numbering around 1,000. Festivalgoers browsed a market comprised of local businesses and competed in a pie-eating contest.

The Lilac Festival wasn’t the only major Calgary event to see cancellations during the lockdown. The Calgary Stampede did not take place in 2020, the first cancellation in close to a century. As a result, Calgary was not able to benefit from the significant boost to the economy generated by the Stampede, an estimated $110.9 million dollars generated by the influx of visitors drawn to the annual event. The cancellation of the Stampede added onto the widespread financial fallout from the extensive lockdowns, an impact still being reckoned with globally.

Early last month, the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 is no longer a global emergency, signalling a definite beginning to the post-pandemic era. Even still, the vast impact of the pandemic is still felt, not only economically but socially. Jenna Wray, a Lilac Festival attendee, said that “[the lockdown] was rough, it took a big toll on my mental health. But overall, I got through it, and I am okay. Therapy is a really important resource.”

The height of the pandemic, from 2020 to 2022, saw a notable increase in levels of mental distress among Canadians. 26 per cent of Albertans reported that their mental health was “slightly worse” compared to prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and 12 per cent of Albertans reported that their mental health was “significantly worse”. In addition, the mental health of youth was disproportionally  impacted by the pandemic, with a report from the Alberta Medical Association claiming that 77 per cent of parents reported the mental health of their child age 15 or more is “worse” in comparison to pre-pandemic levels.

Across Alberta, rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations have been gradually trending downwards over the past year. According to data from the Alberta government, there has been a 60 per cent decrease in hospitalizations from May 14th of 2022 to May 14th of 2023, with 1,132 cases falling to 452. The summer of 2022 coincided with a significant uptick in COVID-19 transmissions, driven by both the end of Provincial restriction mandates and the surge in the Omicron virus variant.

Members of the Polanie Polish Song and Dance Association perform at Calgary’s 32nd annual Lilac Festival on Sunday, June 4, 2023. (Photo by Clayton Keim/SAIT)

While events such as the Lilac Festival and the Calgary Stampede remain possible centres for COVID-19 transmission, the quick return to pre-pandemic attendance levels indicates a willingness among Calgarians to place community over the risk of infection.

“I’m feeling fairly comfortable with it. It seems to have been a while since anything major has happened, so I’m quite okay with it.” said John Sijack, another festivalgoer.

Calgary saw a particularly strong backlash against the provincially mandated COVID-19 restrictions, with frequent rallies and protests from the newly formed anti-lockdown movement, and discourse over provincial mandates carrying over into the recent provincial election. Even with Alberta’s social restrictions firmly in the past, sentiments surrounding the lockdowns are still divisive. According to a poll from Janet Brown Opinion Research, 41 per cent of Calgarians approve of the federal government’s handling of COVID-19, while 38 per cent disapprove.   

 “I think everybody needs to get out, enjoy life,” Redenbach said. “Don’t worry about COVID. I think all those people that die from COVID would have died anyway. You know, you’ve got to live while you’re alive.”

With the pandemic lingering, and the financial, social, and political ramifications actively being processed, for many Calgarians the path forward out of the pandemic is uncertain.

“I’m always mindful about how close everyone gets and how it almost feels like it never happened,” said Jenna Wray, a Lilac Festival attendee. 

“It feels like we never had a pandemic.” 

Janice Nguyen and Bryce Hodgekinson of the Rocky Mountain Acrobats perform during Calgary’s 32nd annual Lilac Festival. (Photo by Clayton Keim/SAIT)
About Clayton Keim 7 Articles
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Clayton Keim is working as a writer for The Press in 2023.