This piece is the first in a series of reports from the Canadian National Exhibition that will be appearing in Chirograph over the next two weeks.
I’ve been working on a book about the history of the Canadian National Exhibition for several years now, but to the best of my knowledge I’ve never seen the opening ceremony that kicks off each year’s installment of the fair. In this I’m hardly alone: when I told people I was going to the opening ceremonies on August 17th this year, more than one person was surprised to learn that the Ex even has an opening ceremony. So it was with considerable curiosity that I went down to the Princes’ Gates last Friday morning.
In the old days, when the CNE was the biggest fair in the world and the most exciting thing in Toronto, the opening ceremony was invariably presided over by some august personage—a governor general, a prime minister, a minor member of the royal family—and the tone tended towards grandiloquence. In 1952, Vincent Massey, who had recently made history by becoming Canada’s first native-born governor general, opened the fair with typical rhetoric. “How eloquently exhibitions can speak,” he proclaimed. “No books could tell the story of Canadian achievement more graphically than such a great fair as this.”
Today people are more apt to think of the CNE as a deep-fried fun fair than as a celebration of Canadian achievement, but old habits die hard, and at the opening ceremony the CNE still reaches for patriotism and mythmaking. This year being the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, it was perhaps inevitable that the CNE would embrace the nationwide bicentennial celebration, especially since Exhibition Place happens to have been built on the site of the Battle of York.
The first nod to 1812 was pure fairground kitsch: Isaac Brock and Laura Secord sailed in on a replica of the HMS Shannon pulled by a tractor, which was then parked over to the side and ignored for the rest of the ceremony. From there, things swung to the solemn and dignified with a speech by Abee Nahdee, great-granddaughter of John Nahdee, a First Nations warrior who fought in the War of 1812 alongside Tecumseh. In introducing her, CNE president Brian Ashton highlighted the First Nations’ contribution to winning the war and quipped that if it wasn’t for the First Nations “this would be the American National Exhibition.”
Threaded in among all the 1812 nationalism was a seemingly random assortment of other stuff: a tribute to gold-medal trampolinist Rosie MacLellan, a video about the history of Exhibition Place narrated by Steven Page, an appearance by the winners of the CHUM FM CNE First Family contest—all of which flew by in about thirty minutes without any discernible structure. As the fair was proclaimed open and the army band struck up “O Canada,” I descended into complete perplexity. What did any of this mean, and what on earth does it have to do with the rest of the fair? Is there anything “Canadian” about bacon sundaes or ring-toss games with oversized Rastafarian bananas as prizes?
To try to answer those questions, to figure out what kind of story this exhibition is telling, I’ll be exploring the fair in a series of posts over the next two weeks, looking at some of the oddities and paradoxes of Toronto’s most peculiar cultural institution.
James MacNevin is a Toronto-based writer and editor. He is working on a cultural history of the CNE.
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